On Friday November 16, renowned film, stage and TV actress/singer Janis Paige brought her acclaimed autobiographical one-woman show to Upstairs at Vitello's. Having turned 90 in September, Miss Paige is unbelievably beautiful and puts some women half her age to shame. She came onstage with assistance due to an injured leg. She said the day before in order to avoid colliding with her little Jack Russell terrier, she darted over him and accidentally crashed into a piece of furniture. She humorously referred to the incident as a pas de deux. In spite of a painful bump on her leg, which caused her to remain seated throughout the 80-minute set, she claimed she was happy to be there. So, with stunning musical director Bill Schneider at the piano, she was off and running like her hero, the 30s/40s thoroughbred racehorse Seabiscuit. Paige is such a vibrant presence that even sitting she proceeded to dazzle her audience with a mesmerizing series of brilliant anecdotes and songs.
Paige starred in many film comedies and musicals at Warner Bros. in the 40s, did a night club act for many years on the road, performed in Vegas, and starred on Broadway in The Pajama Game. Considering she started out a poor girl from Tacoma, Washington who grew up during the depression era, watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers on the silver screen, she did pretty well for herself conquering every medium of show business. There are wonderful tributes to Vegas comics like Billy Daniels, Shecky Greene, Buddy Hackett and unforgettable singer Roberta Sherwood, more intimate ones to Frank Sinatra, her husband lyricist Ray Gilbert, most famous for "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" from the 40s film Song of the South, and to Jack Segal who encouraged her to be a member of the Council of Songwriters Guild, where she spent 25 years protecting the copyrighted material of Ray Gilbert and many others. It's not only people that Paige remembers with the utmost clarity, but places like McCarran Field that served as an airport in Vegas, Eddie's where you would break in new material, the smell of the road like "uniforms, tennis shoes and marijuana", the hotels, the lounges, the big bands, the Latin Quarter in New York City. Paige is such a remarkably evocative actress that listening to her describe these places was like experiencing them up close and for the first time. She pulled you in and blew you away with her vivid recollections of everyone and everything throughout her long and varied career.
Song highlights included: "As If We Never Said Goodbye" from Sunset Boulevard combined with "There's No Business Like Show Business", before which she amusingly decried choosing an opening number, a bluesy reflective "Everything Happens to Me", a heartrendering rendition of the Bergmans' "I Live to Love You" from Ballroom and "Time Heals Everything" from Jerry Herman's Mack & Mabel - emotions ran deep here telling of her feelings after her husband Ray Gilbert's death - followed by a delightful "That's Life", where she had us in stitches talking about the fast pace of our current world, technology and all the "i-shit". "Now everyone takes an anti-depressant for this and for that. In my day, you'd take a 3 martini 2 hour lunch at Sardi's". The Sinatra segment gave us a wonderful "One For My Baby" and in the songwriters' segment her earnest attraction to "Lies of Handsome Men" and Jack Segal's lyrical "Too Soon Old (Too Late Smart)".
Janis Paige is a class act. She is smart, glib, savvy, terribly warm and funny. She can make you laugh in one instant and have you in tears the next. Even though she talks rather than sings most tunes, that's OK, because she's a truly great actress with a voice that's as expressive and passionate as all get out... and that's more than enough to sustain complete satisfaction. I hope she takes this captivating show of memories through song on the road, as young performers must witness her joy and exuberance for living, first hand.