By Anne-Allegra Bennett (@aab_artiste)
In honor of his 80th birthday, Ira Lee Collings lights up the room at Don’t Tell Mama with his show Simply, Ira Lee (a Gay Geezer Celebration Through the Looking Glass… Warts and All). He takes the audience through a walk down memory lane with songbook classics, and stories of his life and career. Perfectly suited for the energy and setting of cabaret style spectacle, Collings brings a great joie de vivre and warmth to the stage with his charming personality. Kicking off the evening with a medley of music by Jerry Herman, the combination of “Before The Parade Passes By” and “Open A New Window” is the perfect way to engage the audience as his story unfolds.
He puts life, energy, and compassion into the music, and from the very beginning he conveys his range of character and emotion. Told in part through the songs selected for the evening, and through his personal storytelling, Simply, Ira Lee… captures the essence of his spirit and energy over the many years he has worked as a performer. It offers a look into his life story of how he came to find the stage as a place to be himself.
In a prelude to singing “Here’s To Life” (Artie Butler and Phyllis Molinary), Collings stated that “gay geezer power gives me the courage to stand up here and be proud of who I am.” The lyrics to the song offer an insightful reflection into the inspiration they have brought to Collings throughout the course of his career, and they continue to shape his work as a performer. Showing his more playful side, “Anything Can Happen- Mambo” (Sid Wayne and Joe Sherman) is one of the more light-hearted moments that demonstrates just how contagious Collings’ energy really is and how he is able to entertain his audience with ease.
While Collings is the main attraction of the show and it is about his life adventures, he is joined by musical director John M. Cook on the piano. Cook is given several moments throughout the evening to demonstrate his extensive talent as he tickles the ivories, and he interacts with Collings with a great deal of charm and camaraderie. The two share a special dynamic that helps with smoothly transitioning between each song. Cook is especially given time to shine in “I’m Beginning To See The Light” (Duke Ellington, Don George, Johnny Hodges, and Harry James).
In showing his appreciation for artists who helped to inspire him, as Collings finally found his way to New York and wondered what was to come, he asks “what would Judy Garland do?” before diving with determination into the classic “Lose That Long Face” (Ira Gershwin and Harold Arlen). The start of the next chapter in his career. The very colorful and upbeat “A Lot of Livin To Do” (Lee Adams and Charles Strouse) was fun, vibrant, highly engaging, a highlight of the evening, and came about after he told the audience that he had won a talent contest at a gay bar– “just like Barbra.”
One of the most touching numbers of the evening was “At Last” (Mack Gordon and Harry Warren), showing the 30 years of love between Ira Lee and his partner Owen, and how much they mean to one another. It seamlessly transitioned into the equally memorable “Just In Time” (Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Jule Styne). The themes of the two songs fit together naturally, and were quite symbolic of the importance of their relationship.
Owen played along in the next song “Haven’t Got A Worry” (Raymond Evans and Jay Livingston) as he rang a couple of bells in the spirit of the moment after Collings asked the audience “do we have our bells out and ready to go?” Himself pulling out a bell and flag in fitting tribute to the number.
Keeping along with the playful aspect of the show and inviting audience participation, Collings included “Bibbidi- Bobbidi-Boo” (Mack David, Al Hoffman, and Jerry Livingston), after explaining that during his participation with Mama’s Big Act they had to perform a Disney song. A fun little number that helped to join the energy of the audience and performer.
A change of pace and energy, “Come In From The Rain” (Melissa Manchester and Carol Bayer Sager) was bittersweet and touching as it looked at Collings’ eighty years through the looking glass, and at his life through its moments of ups and downs. Very touching, and as he finished the song, the gesture of placing the mirror to his chest and sighing was quite moving. The evening was capped off by a tribute to his mother as each show he takes a moment to honor her memory. Every time she finished a jar of Skippy peanut butter, it became a teacup. “Cheers mom,” he said as he lifted the jar. A fitting tribute to the telling of his life story.
Simply, Ira Lee…is an entertaining and engaging look at the life and career of Ira Lee Collings, and at 80 years young he continues to stay strong and show that his career as an entertainer is not over yet.