“La Vie en Rose” Unplugged

By Shoshanna McCollumOn the stage Rose Levine mentioned to her audience that she had been performing at the Cherry Grove Community House Theatre since 1955. That’s 58 years prior to the theatre we were sitting in was declared a historical landmark. Rose performs one night live on stage every summer, but this year is unique. The July 14 date meant this performance was on Bastille Day, thus the decidedly French flavor to the evening. “La Vie en Rose” is also the name of the performer’s beloved and eclectic bayside home, and this performance was just a little more special this year because Rose is Cherry Grove Homecoming Queen – the year of the rose.Rose’s alter ego is Robert Levine, a columnist with this publication, and over the years a friend of this editor. We have spent many hours negotiating, arguing, and sometimes even gossiping on the telephone. There are better writers on this staff up to the job of stage reviews. Nevertheless I was asked to come, an offer declined in the past because Rose always seems to perform the weekend before we are going to press, when it’s hard to get away. But there is always going to be a deadline, so this year I accepted the gracious invitation.I’ll start by borrowing a passage that our Broadway theater critic Leonard Feigenblatt wrote last summer: “Rose Levine is no ordinary drag queen… She doesn’t wear over exaggerated make up, 6-inch high heels or have a big teased wig. Rose would never be caught lip-synching. Her transformation is delicate and she concentrates on her art.” However I did not really know how stunning the transformation was until I saw it for myself.Before the actual performance, a quick “hail to the queen” curtain call was made where the audience was commanded to stand before the homecoming queen regally seated with a bejeweled crown upon her head, as her consort and longtime partner Michael Fitzgerald stood by her side. After a brief pause, Rose flirtatiously peeked out behind the curtain for her opening number, “La Marseillaise,” the national anthem of France, which seamlessly segued into the Edith Piaf classic, “La Vie en Rose.”The production itself was organized into an anthology of some of Broadway’s best songwriters: Stephen Sondheim, Jule Styne, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Kander and Ebb, and Irving Berlin among others.Then there were the costume changes. A billowy black silk gown for starters, tastefully accessorized with just the right balance of bling. In the blink of an eye Rose was in “chorus line” mode with high heels and tap pants, which allowed for quick changes in looks – a jacket in black or navy, a boa in white – each one signaling a shift in gears to the next chapter. (How does an octogenarian manage those heels? Not to mention the kicks!) Of course the evening would not be complete without the triumphant red, black and white feathered headdress Rose sported in the royal procession she led at the Invasion of Fire Island Pines only 10 days before.Some personal favorite numbers included Sondheim’s “Broadway Baby,” “Ten Cents a Dance” by Rodgers and Hart, Berlin’s “I Got Lost in His Arms and Had to Stay,” “Chicago’s” ever-sublime “All that Jazz,” and that unforgettable “Old Fashioned Wedding” duet with the talented Chris Bell. We don’t have the space to list every song jam-packed into those two hours. We do have time to say Rose sang them loud and clear, was never off key, and she certainly knew how to work the room.Some of the best moments however were the unscripted ones. If Rose stumbled over a line, or her smart blonde wig slipped, she recovered and went on. The best example of this was toward the end of the evening when Rose had changed into a tastefully understated black chiffon evening dress, only to have the tag slip out of the sleeve. “I can return it on Monday,” she quipped. The audience roared with laughter at this, and when Michael Fitzgerald gallantly offered his hand to take the tag, Rose shooed him away. “And that’s why they call me Secondhand Rose,” she added without missing a beat.While much of the evening was filled with comedy the performance became poignant as Rose chose Jerry Herman as one of the last composers in this retrospective. Herman is not only famous for “Hello, Dolly” and “La Cage aux Folles,” but as one of the greats with a strong connection to Cherry Grove. Rose’s closing songs were a touching tribute to friends acquired over a lifetime on Fire Island.Kudos must also be given to Artistic Director George McGarvey, whose stage set design created stunning impact with elegant simplicity; Musical Director Brian Taylor on the piano, whose focus never wavered; and of course Choreographer Chris Bell who accompanied Rose in several song and dance numbers – their chemistry was sheer joy to watch.