The Next Stage

During her two decades in Chicago theater, Alexandra Billings has tackled many projects, from Vampire Lesbians of Sodom to Ingmar Bergman’s Nora, from playing Gertrude Stein to playing Xena the Warrior Princess. She’s performed an autobiographical show about her experience becoming a transsexual woman and launched a second career as a cabaret singer. But none of that prepared her for her first recording session three years ago at Sparrow Sound Design in Lakeview. “I freaked out because there was no audience,” she recalls. “I’m really an actress, and I don’t think of myself as a great singer.”

Billings managed to cut a demo tape, and earlier this week at Gentry on Halsted she celebrated the release of her debut CD, Being Alive, on the local jazz label Southport Records. The collection of ballads and up-tempo tunes includes the Gershwins’ “I Got Rhythm,” Carly Simon’s “Let the River Run,” and the title song by Stephen Sondheim. Billings covers Jule Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green’s “Just in Time,” and the CD closes with a rousing interpretation of Dennis DeYoung’s “Come Sail Away.” Most of the songs were plucked from Billings’s live act, but the set is also meant to reflect her take on life. “Every song is a part of the journey, and not every song is neat and tidy,” she writes in the liner notes. “My life has been anything but neat and tidy.”

The late Douglas Hartzell, who directed her in Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, always prodded her to sing professionally. “You need to do something else,” she recalls him saying. “You can’t be a drag queen forever.” She began performing in 1989 and has since become a fixture at Gentry in River North. “She sits atop the piano like a throne and works the room like a master,” writes Steppenwolf director Tina Landau in the record’s liner notes. “She uses her hands and nails to sculpt the air. She rattles the audience with asides and wisecracks. She conjures the spirits of great female performers, from Garland to Monroe to Hepburn.” For her producer, Ralph Lampkin Jr., capturing that appeal on tape was a challenge: “Alex feeds off her audiences, so it was difficult singing into a cold mike and not getting anything back….It took a lot of time for her to feel the music and get the interpretation right.”

Being Alive is the third release in Southport’s new cabaret series. The label has been releasing jazz titles since 1979, but three years ago husband-and-wife owners Bradley Parker-Sparrow and Joanie Pallatto began to think about branching out. Can’t Help Singin’ by newcomer Christiana Moffa inaugurated the series in 1998, and last year Southport released It’s a Grand Night for Singing by Marie Michuda, a voice teacher at Northwestern University. According to Pallatto, the small audience and dwindling number of venues for cabaret make it a tough sell. “If the artists aren’t out there performing all the time, it’s hard for them to develop new fans who will buy their recordings.” Sales from the label’s Web site have helped, and Pallatto says the cabaret series does good business through Billings is such a ubiquitous presence in town that Being Alive may do well, but after the struggle to finish it, she has no plans to step back inside a recording studio anytime soon.

Springtime for Drabinsky

If Nixon could make a comeback, why not Garth Drabinsky? The Toronto theater impresario helped restore the Oriental Theatre, but shortly after it reopened in November 1998 his producing organization, Livent Inc., ousted him as CEO and filed suit against him, alleging “fraud, conversion, and unjust enrichment.” He’s been unwilling to enter the U.S. since January 1999, when the U.S. attorney’s office in New York City indicted him on 16 criminal counts of fraud and conspiracy. The collapse of Livent left vendors with unpaid bills and thousands of investors holding worthless stocks, and for 18 months now the feds have been trying to extradite him to stand trial. But two of the city’s most prominent theater critics, Richard Christiansen of the Tribune and Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times, both seem willing to give Drabinsky some favorable ink.

Their hook was Drabin-sky’s announcement that he’ll remount the Royal National Theatre’s production of Athol Fugard’s antiapartheid play The Island in Toronto next spring. In her June 30 story Weiss briefly noted the producer’s unpleasant legal situation, then went on to describe him as “the visionary force behind the theater giant Livent.” She played up his anguish at having missed the Oriental’s reopen-ing, and the caption for his professorial photo identified him only as the man “largely responsible” for the theater’s restoration. Drabinsky pontifi-cated on his desire to “enlighten as well as entertain”–a speech that provided the story’s pull quote–and Weiss ticked off a number of his other activities, including a job as marketing consultant for Canada’s National Post (whose parent company, Hollinger International, also owns the Sun-Times). Christiansen’s July 2 column noted Drabinsky’s “characteristic enthusiasm and bravado,” served up quotes like “I always go for the works that fill my heart and soul,” and reported that Drabinsky had “nothing but scorn for the ‘stupid’ marketing techniques” of those who tried to rescue Livent from bankruptcy.

One source in the Toronto theater industry says that after more than a year in hiding Drabinsky has begun showing up at openings, “but only very serious productions, nothing too frivolous.” The producer has also given speeches commenting on the state of the arts in Canada and lambasting corporations for not being more supportive of them. But Canada’s national newpaper the Globe and Mail has been slightly less charitable than the Chicago dailies; a June 21 story by arts reporter Michael Posner referred to Drabinsky as “a fugitive from justice,” noted that box-office revenues from The Island could conceivably be put in escrow pending settlement of civil litigation against Drabinsky, and quoted the suggestion of John Karastamatis, an executive with rival producer Mirvish Productions, that Drabinsky give away tickets to Livent ticket holders who were never reimbursed after the corporation went into a tailspin. In any case, Drabinsky’s comeback might prove short-lived: according to the same story, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are nearing a decision on whether to level their own fraud charges against Drabinsky and his former Livent partner, Myron Gottlieb.

Here and Gone

Last week we reported that Mariette Hartley would appear in readings of Jeff Sweet and Melissa Manchester’s musical, I Sent a Letter to My Love, at the annual New Tuners Theatre workshop July 29 and 30. Hartley has since dropped out.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Alexandra Billings photo by J.B. Spector.