ALTER EGO Hawkins as Blaze.
Anyone who likes musicals has to love cabarets, which are Whitman's samplers of humming-in-the-shower favorites. So if you end up taking in one of the shows this summer at Theatre by the Sea in Matunuck, you also might be interested in catching the post-show Bistro by the Sea Cabaret at the adjacent restaurant every Friday through Sunday.
Mistress of Ceremonies is Sabrina Blaze, familiar to Providence audiences from her regular performances at the Dark Lady nightclub.
Unlike such drag queens as Miss Kitty Litter and La Diva Jones, who always perform in character, on opening night Wayne Alan Hawkins first stepped on stage as the Emcee from Cabaret, singing and bantering through the sinister "Willkommen."
Removing that costume, he introduced himself and began dressing as Blaze, already sporting fire engine red lipstick from his opening character. When he reached toward the coat rack, somebody piped up — "Mr. Rogers!" — and he responded ungraciously to the harmless blurt — "Asshole!" Echoes of the continentally slithery Emcee had taken a while to fade away. But once further into costume, she settled into a more benign, if occasionally comically bitchy, manner.
The initial contrast — inviting, then hostile — was fascinating, as was the decision to segue from a creepy character of uncertain sexuality, to Wayne Hawkins, to Sabrina Blaze. Hawkins, you see, started out acting in local community theaters. Not only did he play the Emcee, he has portrayed the curmudgeonly Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, the hopeless romantic Billy Flynn in Chicago, and the drag queen Albin in La Cage Aux Folles. He also booked cabaret acts for the Newport Dinner Theatre.
It wasn't until 2003 that Blaze discovered herself inhabiting Hawkins and emerged, delivering a knockout Carol Channing impersonation that won her the Miss Gay Rhode Island award that year. (Blaze did Carol as well as Mae West in her cabaret introductions.) Blaze became a regular at charity drag shows. As her MySpace blog page details, she sold out a 200-seat venue for her first solo show, bettering the accomplishment with 800 seats for her next show.
The 45-year-old Hawkins is well up into 6 feet, and even sitting down facing us through a pretend vanity mirror he looms large. As he chats with the audience, finishing dressing as his feminine alter ego, he pulls up a slinky, pink-sequined dress, tucks in a couple of falsies, crowns himself with a towering wig that would have out-snapped Louis XIV, and visibly becomes more comfortable with herself than we'd seen him be with himself.
Blaze strolls the audience with a hand mike, tossing off short bawdy jokes and dirty one-liners in classic drag act tradition. But she also introduces singers from the current Theatre by the Sea show, usually returning in a different costume and wig. (The last dress sparkled with large blue sequins, and the massive headpiece looked like it needed a cable to support it.)
The cabaret performers will vary, but if opening night was typical, good times will be had by all. The performers are out there because they can't get enough of the rush of applause and want to share their favorite songs with us.
The feel-good tone of the opening evening as well as the expansive performance style was set by senior cast member Ira Denmark, belting out "Circle of Life" from The Lion King. But the evening didn't remain all Disney on us. Later, Nick Nelson sang "In Short" from the musical Edges. The litany of malign wishes from an irate former lover is hilariously evil. Google it if you haven't heard it.
Another song that stood out was "Lucy's Laugh," sung by Matthew Meigs. It's from a Kooman/Dimond song cycle and is slow and sentimental, a beautifully articulate explication of the inadequacy of words.
But before we were through, Sabrina Blaze/Wayne Hawkins was back, paraphrasing Dr. Seuss. "People who mind — they don't matter. And those that matter, they don't mind," she declared, introducing the powerful anthem "I Am What I Am," from La Cage. As the good doctor also said: "Today you are you, that is truer than true/There is no one alive who is youer than you." Wayne Hawkins — and Fred Rogers, Wayne — would agree.