Caberet, Main Stage, Vocalist

Alan Cumming Brings Song and Laughter, Kicking off the Season At Symphony Hall

By Angela Hyde

When Boston impresario Aaron Richmond started Celebrity Series in 1938, the first performance under the organization’s name was a concert by Serge Jaroff and the Don Cossack Choir.

Made up of exiled Cossack men, in the dazzling Symphony Hall, the choir of deep-voiced Russians had only just become American citizens two years before this performance in a mass ceremony. Now, as we celebrate 80 years of Celebrity Series performances, another immigrant graces the stage of Symphony Hall to launch the Celebrity Series 2018-19 season.

Alan Cumming came to the United States to act and perform, and found himself enamored with the world within New York City. On October 7th, after ten years of being a citizen, his show Legal Immigrant follows his story of coming to America and celebrates the immigrants who have made this country what it is. Through songs – mostly, he credits, by women and those who identify as immigrants – Cumming performs an ode to diversity, a tribute to the melting-pot that is the United States, as well as Boston itself.

“Hello, Boston,” Cumming says as he sings his first song of the night. “My name is Alan Cumming, and I am a legal immigrant.”

 

Backing up Cumming are four performers who are immigrants themselves or descendants of immigrants: on piano is Lance Horne, the long-time music director for Alan Cumming, cellist Eleanor Norton, trumpeter Riley Mulherkar, and Chris Jago on both guitar and drums. These performers, and the music they’re all performing together, are all-encompassing of the message Cumming is hoping to send: that immigrants are what makes America thrive.

The show starts with a medley; “The Singer”/”Not A Day Goes By”/”Losing My Mind,” three songs woven together in a lovely mix of sometimes-upbeat, sometimes-somber, with the special splash of coyness that highlights all of Cumming’s performances. These pieces, first by Liza Minnelli and the last two by Stephen Sondheim, are a great sampling of the setlist to come.

After reminiscing on the politics of the past ten years, Cumming breaks into a medley of P!nk’s “Just Give Me A Reason,” and “Falling In Love Again” by Marlene Dietrich. The first is energetic, drum-heavy and vibrant, and the second earnest with the cello in the lead. Both signify the bittersweet need to “learn to love” that American dream again, which sometimes feels far from doable in today’s world.

With the deft skill of a true performer, Cummings goes on to mash up Schubert and Peggy Lee with references to current politics and a rendition of a Victoria Woods song that has the audience giggling. He tells tales about fellow Scotsman Sean Connery and sings “Caledonia” by Dougie MacLean as an ode to both Connery and the home they share. His vibrant smile beams as he tells the story of helping to reopen a local theatre in Aberfeldy, Scotland, the town of his birth, and there is a pride that vibrates around the room when he says “it’s really magical to be reminded how the arts can truly revitalize an area.” There is a shared understanding that can be felt between Cumming and the audience: everyone in this decades-old performance hall knows the power of the arts.

The second half of the show ranges in musical style, such as beloved Disney songs of longing – Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go,” and “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid – moving to Adele’s “When We Were Young.” As the romantic Adele ballad ends, the cello leads into the French song “Hymne à l’amour,” a well-known chanson popularized by Edith Piaf.

Cumming closes the show with a few final thoughts: “Tonight is a celebration of immigration,” he begins. “The real reason I wanted to do this show was because a few months ago I discovered that the United States Citizenship and Immigration website removed the phrase ‘nation of immigrants’ from all its records.” The audience is quiet as we ponder this. Cumming continues, “This is historical revision happening right before our eyes, and it’s wrong. We are a nation of immigrants.” To this the audience applauds, and whoops of enthusiasm can be heard. In Symphony Hall, the first time I have ever walked the doors or sat in the seats, the vibrancy of mutual agreement is resounding, uplifting, and fills a young person like me with hope. “This nation was built by immigrants and I hope I’ve shown tonight the amazing culture and beauty that immigrants have brought to our lives.”

With this pride bubbling, Cumming performs a song by his pianist and musical director Lance Horne, “Last Day on Earth.” This song reminds all the audience to live as though we won’t see another day – and to make it worthwhile, and memorable.

This show is an especially dynamic one to kick off Celebrity Series’ 80th year, as it reminds us all, audience and reader, that so many American institutions we appreciate today were started by immigrants. We should look to our past with pride, to the first Celebrity Series performance in 1938 when Cossack refugees graced Symphony Hall, but also to the future with excitement.

Throughout the 2018-19 season, Celebrity Series presents artists who celebrate the diversity of the world we share. Explore the calendar to learn about performances in October and beyond – the international performers of Ephrat Asherie Dance mixing street and social dance to live music by Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth in Celebrity Series’ first performance at NEC’s Plimpton Shattuck Black Box Theatre, Veronica Robles and her all-female mariachi band in a Day of the Dead family concert for Neighborhood Arts, beloved pianist Emanuel Ax, himself an immigrant from Poland, in a solo recital at Symphony Hall, and so much more. We hope you’ll join us.

Performance sponsors Reuben Reynolds & Bill Casey with Alan Cumming and Boston Conservatory Students


As a College for Social Innovation Fellow in the Fall of 2018, Angela Hyde is an intern with the Advancement Department at Celebrity Series of Boston. She is a senior at Wheaton College MA, pursuing a Writing Degree, with a minor in Journalism Studies.

All photos by Robert Torres.

 

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