Alan Cumming’s one-man show, ‘Legal Immigrant,’ has political edge

Alan Cumming review

Alan Cumming poses with himself in a publicity photo for his show, “Legal Immigrant.”

A great performer can make even the most imposing space seem intimate, which Alan Cumming proved with elan, charm and boyish sincerity when he brought his one-man show, “Alan Cumming: Legal Immigrant,” to the State Theatre in New Brunswick, Sept. 29.

Although he’s more an actor who sings than a trained vocalist, Cumming regaled his audience with a colorful collection of songs — some familiar, others obscure, and predominantly made famous by female artists — infusing each lyric with Broadway pizazz and his Scottish brogue. Cumming has been touring the show around America for months, and it couldn’t have arrived in New Jersey at a more apropos moment, with issues such as women’s rights and immigration at the forefront of our national dialogue.

As a young man, Alan Cumming attended the (tuition-free) Royal Scottish Academy of Drama and began his career in the government-supported regional theaters of his home country. “I wouldn’t be here if not for the generosity of the Scottish taxpayer,” he noted, wryly.

His breakthrough came in 1993 when he reinvented the role of Master of Ceremonies in the West End and Broadway revival of “Cabaret,” although American audiences probably know him best from his long-running role in CBS’ “The Good Wife” and his current gig as a spy-turned-professor-turned-criminologist in “Instinct” (on which he plays the first gay male lead in an American TV drama.)

He became an American citizen 10 years ago, and this show focuses on his experiences as an immigrant and on the worldwide topic of immigration in general. “I don’t like the word ‘naturalized,’ ” he chided the crowd. “It makes it sound like anyone who isn’t American is unnatural.”

“I’ve noticed recently how the mood has changed even around me as an immigrant,” Cumming said. “And if a privileged white male like me feels it, you can only imagine what it’s like for a person of color or a Muslim.”

That’s some heavy stuff, but Cumming’s erudite patter kept the evening lively, witty and chock-full of laughs, even when touching on some of the more dire consequences of our current president’s policies. He came onstage in a natty gray sportcoat, and when he took it off a few minutes later, revealed the sleeves of his shirt had been cut off. “I hear you support the right to bare arms here,” he said.

Cumming performed on an unadorned stage surrounded by a triangle of musicians — cellist Eleanor Norton, drummer/guitarist Chris Jego, and pianist/musical director Lance Horne. Early on, he introduced them by carefully denoting their nationalities, and he carried the theme throughout the show, parsing the backgrounds of the songwriters and performers he covered.

Highlights included his flamboyant take on Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?,” interrupted by chatty patter about his, umm, interesting sex life, and Marlene Dietrich’s ageless chestnut, “Falling in Love Again.” Invoking divas both old and new, Cumming sang the rarely heard Sondheim torch song “Losing My Mind” (which he explained Liza Minnelli insisted he do) and tracks made popular by Adele, Édith Piaf and Pink (whom he described as an “Ashkenazi-Sephardic-Jewish-Irish-German-English-American”).

His unabashedly anti-Trump jokes and his embrace of American cultural history (he dourly noted that the U.S. Immigration Service removed the words “Nation of Immigrants” from its website under Trump) drew repeated applause, although a few hecklers disagreed. This Italian-German-American couldn’t have been more delighted, though. Ideally some cable network will film this show so it can reach a broader audience. We all need to be remembered where we came from if America is going to survive.

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