Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2004
“To thine own self be true.” – William Shakespeare
In this day and age too many of us are under the ad-induced delusion that the only self worth being true to is a perfect one. We have no problem letting down the old, shabby, imperfect self that we see reflected in the mirror every day. And that is why a lot of us do not live up to our potential.
Totie Fields, nee Sophie Feldman, (1930-1978) was true to herself even though the self she was saddled with was short, round, raucous, and decidedly Jewish. She took this self confidence and self esteem and turned it into a successful career as a comedienne. She starred in the Catskill borscht belt, in Vegas, and at nightclubs in New York and across the country. She made dozens of appearances on the Ed Sullivan, Mike Douglas, and Merv Griffin shows. She was even a Hollywood Square.
Nancy Timpanaro-Hogan is also not a classic, Barbie-style beauty, but, like Fields, she is a talented woman who has stayed true to herself and created quite a career. Not a Hollywood Square, perhaps, but a Manhattan Association Cabaret & Clubs (MAC) Award winner for Outstanding Musical Comedy Performer and a four time Back Stage “Bistro” Award winner for Best Female Vocalist and Best Musical Comedy performer. New York City is a tough town to get hired in, let alone get awards from. Timpanaro-Hogan had a quarter-century run on the Big Apple cabaret circuit before a marriage brought her to the Capital District in 2001.
And, also like Fields, Timpanaro-Hogan knows what she wants and how to go about getting it. Faced with married life in a land of few nightclubs, she and her husband have formed Capital District Cabaret, a group whose goal is to provide cabaret performers with an atmosphere in which their craft can develop and a network of artists and clubs that helps them to thrive. She is the co-author, with Bobby Pearce, of Adorable Me!: The Totie Fields Story. The show was selected as a finalist in the Long Beach (CA) Civic Light Opera’s New Works Festival. In 1996 Adorable Me! made its successful Off-Broadway debut at the American Jewish Theatre where it won a Backstage “Bistro” Award for Outstanding Achievement/Best Theme Show. Timpanaro-Hogan has toured the show successfully on and off ever since.
In another Fields analogy, Timpanero-Hogan is short and round, possessed of a powerful singing voice and stage presence. I don’t remember Fields as a singer, but if Timapnaro-Hogan says she was one, that’s good enough for me. I have only childhood memories of Fields on television in the 1960’s and 1970s. She was one of those people the talk show hosts made a big fuss over and I never quite figured out why. Her humor passed me by, but I was only 21 when she died, and Fields' jokes were aimed more at adult women than young girls.
Adorable Me! is very definitely an adult show, with lots of bawdy humor and sex talk. As a person who only remembers Fields from TV, my reaction was “That’s not Totie Fields’ act!” but again I would bet that I am wrong. On a nightclub stage before a late-night all-adult audience she probably did and said much of what Timpanaro-Hogan portrays her doing and saying.
Robert Bendorff has provided all the music and lyrics for the show, and they are quite unmemorable. Timpanaro-Hogan belts them out with everything she’s got, which is a LOT, but they are just plain mediocre songs. John McMahon provides the on stage piano accompaniment for Timpanaro-Hogan, and gamely dresses in some terrible 1970’s menswear. He gets a few lines too, as “Stormy Weathers,” Totie’s accompanist in the act. As Timpanaro-Hogan portrays Fields’ life it was a fairly happy one, which makes for bad theatre. Adorable Me! depends entirely on Timpanaro-Hogan’s talent and rapport with the audience to bring it to life. She a performer, not a playwright, and the book is the weakest part of this show.
Fields had professional success and a long and happy marriage to her beloved Georgie – George Johnston. Tragedy came later when complications from diabetes led to the amputation of her left leg and she suffered from breast cancer. Fields died in 1978 at the age of 48, a full life that could have gone on for a few happy decades longer. Where would Rosanne Barr be today without Totie Fields to blaze the trail?
Timpanaro-Hogan gets to wear two gaudy and flattering dresses designed by Gregg Cook. The rather frenetic lighting design by Kevin Gleason attempts to make smooth the rapid and jarring transitions between times and locales that the script tosses about so freely. I was fascinated to see what appeared to be the actual floor of the Mac-Haydn stage for the, well, at least my, first time. It is a very attractive hardwood surface. I am astounded that it has withstood all the years of painting and pounding under tap shoes looking so smart.
Adorable Me!: The Totie Fields Story runs through July 25 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Rt. 203 in Chatham, NY. The show runs an hour and forty-five minutes with one intermission. This one's for the grown-ups only - leave the kids at home. Call the box office at 518-392-9292 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004