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Fine Arts Center unveils new season: All-around entertainer Alan Cumming opens with his cabaret show, ‘Sappy Songs’

  • Actor, writer and singer Alan Cumming opens the FAC’s new season Saturday with his cabaret show “Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs.” Tré—© Tré Inc. 2016

  •  Actor, writer and singer Alan Cumming opens the FAC’s new season Saturday with his cabaret show “Alan Cummng Sings Sappy Songs.” Tré—© Tré Inc. 2016

  • The Los Angeles dance company Contra-Tiempo brings its multilingual, Latin-flavored movement to the FAC Oct. 6. Steve Wylie—Copyright Steve Wylie

  •  The Shanghai Acrobats of the People’s Republic of China perform Nov. 9.

  • On November 15, jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez recreates his score live for a showing of “Birdman,” winner of a 2015 Oscar for best picture. —

  • ”Once,” a Tony-winning musical with an ensemble cast of actors/musicians who play their instruments on stage, comes to the FAC Dec. 1. Joan Marcus—©201 Joan Marcus

  • Pianist Aaron Diehl and Grammy-winning vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant perform the music of Jelly Roll Morton and George Gershwin Feb. 16. xxxxxxxx

  • The Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, one of Poland’s most distinguished musical groups since the early 1900s, plays Oct. 30. xxxxxxxxx


Staff Writer 
Thursday, September 22, 2016

By STEVE PFARRER

You could say Alan Cumming is something like a five-tool player in baseball — the guy who can hit, hit for power, steal bases, field well and has a strong throwing arm.

An actor who’s excelled in a variety of roles on TV (“The Good Wife”), in film (“Eyes Wide Shut,” Spy Kids”), and on stage (“Cabaret,” “Hamlet”), Cumming has also penned a best-selling autobiography, written a new book that’s illustrated with his own photos, and hosted PBS’s “Masterpiece Mystery!” series.

Oh, and he sings, too — and he’ll be doing a bit of that this Saturday when he opens the new season at the Fine Arts Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  

Cumming’s “Sappy Songs” cabaret show is part of the usual broad mix of programming offered by the FAC, whose theme for the new season — “Eat. Art. Love.” — suggests art is a basic need of the human animal.

For the center’s 2016-17 season, music, ranging from jazz to Indian ragas to classical guitar, is a big part of the agenda, as is a wide range of dance, with companies from Canada, Australia, the United States and Japan among the performers.

Highlights include an Oct. 30 performance by the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra, one of Poland’s most distinguished musical groups, with a history dating to the early 1900s. And the multiple Tony-winning musical “Once,” with actors/musicians who play their instruments onstage, comes to the FAC Dec. 1.

Cinema also gets its due, with a twist. “Birdman,” the 2015 Oscar winner for Best Picture starring Michael Keaton, will be shown Nov. 15 — and jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez will accompany the film live, recreating the score he played on what proved to be a Grammy-winning soundtrack for the film.

Songs that resonate 

Cumming, a native of Scotland who’s made his home in New York City since the late 1990s, has won acclaim for both his serious and comedic roles in film and theater, as well as for his mischievous, campy personality; he’s a go-to guest for many a late-night TV talk show.

On Twitter, he describes himself as a “Scottish elf trapped inside [a] middle aged man's body,” and he first attracted praise in the U.S. playing the androgynous master of ceremonies in the 1998 revival of “Cabaret” on Broadway.

But in a recent phone call from New York, Cumming, who’s 51, said his “Sappy Songs” show comes from a more personal and emotional side of him. 

“These are all songs that I connect with, that touch me in some way,” he said. “And it’s also a challenge for me, to bring something new to a song and share that with an audience.”

It’s the second cabaret show he’s taken on tour, both in the U.S, and overseas. Conquering some initial fears of being onstage as himself and not as a character, he began the first one, “I Bought a Blue Car Today,” in 2009; he enjoyed the experience so much he selected a new batch of songs and began touring them last year as “Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs.”

That’s a tongue-in-cheek title for a potpourri of material, ranging from classic show tunes like “The Ladies Who Lunch” to modern pop, including Billy Joel’s “Goodnight Saigon,” Annie Lenox’s “Why” and a mashup of tunes by Adele, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry.  There’s also Rufus Wainwright’s “Dinner at Eight,” the singer’s famous lament and challenge to his father, singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright Jr., about their fractured relationship.

Cumming says that song has particular resonance for him because he grew up with an abusive father, a story he chronicled in his 2014 autobiography, “Not My Father’s Son.”

In his show, at which he’s backed by a pianist and cellist (and on occasion a drummer), Cumming also regales his audiences with plenty of personal stories, like one about a tattoo he got and later had removed from a nether region. He’s an enthusiastic raconteur who enjoys leavening his show with some of his latest thoughts.

“I’ve been known to ramble and let my views be known,” he said with a laugh.

Though he took weekly singing lessons when he attended drama school in Edinburgh, he says he’s had no other formal musical training. But critics have given him high marks for his expressive vocals, lively stage presence and interpretations of other people’s music.

As The New York Times wrote of his show last year, “In the underpopulated arena of male cabaret singers, Mr. Cumming may be the only one with the talent and drive to change its direction.”

Cumming says the last few months have been particularly hectic for him, as he’s bounced between different projects, like debuting his new book, “You Gotta Get Bigger Dreams: My Life in Stories and Pictures.” So the opportunity to perform his songs for a new audience — it’s his first trip to western Massachusetts — is a welcome break, he added.

“It’s really gratifying to sing these songs, and to feel a personal connection [with the audience],” he said. “I’m so grateful for it.”

Music and movement 

Among a wealth of other performances in its new season, the FAC will host Contra-Tiempo, an activist, multilingual dance company from Los Angeles, on Oct. 6, for the group’s new project, “Agua Furiosa” (“Raging Water”). The new show, inspired in part by Skakespeare’s “The Tempest,” encompasses racial conflict, inequality, gun violence and the politics of water and drought, and it blends salsa, hip-hop and other contemporary dance styles with electronic music.

Another show promising lots of movement: the Nov. 9 appearance by the Shanghai Acrobats of the People’s Republic of China. The award-winning group, which has performed in over 30 countries, will offer its newest work, “Shanghai Nights,” in which more than 100 acrobats dramatize “the hustle and bustle of contemporary Shanghai with China's rich cultural heritage.”

And among several jazz concerts, a Feb. 16 show at the FAC will celebrate the work of two seminal American composers, Jelly Roll Morton and George Gershwin, as two rising stars — pianist Aaron Diehl and Grammy-winning vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant — combine to offer “energetic interpretations” of the composers’ work.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

Alan Cumming performs at the FAC Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $75, $70 and $30 for the general public and $20-$30 for Five College students and people 17 years old or younger. For details on this and other FAC shows, visit www.fineartscenter.com.