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Review: 'Dame Edna: My First Last Tour' at the Ahmanson Theatre

June 11, 2009 |  4:30 pm

Dame Edna Every generation gets the behavioral analysts and professional advice givers that it deserves. Previous eras had Masters and Johnson and Alfred Kinsey. Ours has Dr. Phil and, heaven help us, Simon Cowell.

Thank goodness, then, that we also have Dame Edna Everage, currently conducting one of her intimate group-therapy sessions nightly for a select crowd of about 1,600 at the Ahmanson Theatre. The self-styled “social anthropologist, talk show host, swami, celebrity spin doctor and icon” swept onstage Wednesday night, resplendent in high heels, lavender hair and clingy gowns that afford occasional, tasteful flashes of skin, to present what she’s billing as “My First Last Tour.”

And although Dame Edna’s presence was as “unconventionally beautiful” and flamboyantly hilarious as ever, you’d be right to detect a touch of playful melancholy in the show’s title. After all, as Dame Edna more than once reminded her appreciative L.A. audience, the twin shadows of mortality and hard times occasionally fall even across cities where six-pack abs, Botox-smooth skin and prestigious ZIP Codes are highly prized, and fabulousness is next to godliness.

“You’ve aged tragically,” she greeted the packed house, “and I haven’t changed. It isn’t fair.” However, she did concede that we, her worshipers, did look pretty good “for Wednesday in downtown Los Angeles in the middle of a recession.”

Later on, she blithely addressed her fans in the (cheaper) balcony seats as “former hedge-fund managers and friends of Bernie,” even coming up with a cheerful coinage to describe them: “nouveaux pauvres.”

The newly down-and-out weren’t Dame Edna’s only concern. Throughout her nearly 90-minute performance, occasionally accompanied in song and (dare we call it?) dance numbers by pianist Andrew Ross, and her frumpy, disgruntled “daughter” (Erin-Kate Whitcomb), Dame Edna also showed a preoccupation with what she (in her more polite moments) referred to as the “seniors” in the audience.

Several white-headed souls sitting precariously near the stage were singled out for some of Dame Edna’s ritualistically affectionate abuse. “You remind me of myself. I used to try to make my own clothes,” she informed one.

Eventually, four senior attendees and one middle-age woman were entreated to come up on stage and take part in a talk-show style program, hosted by Dame Edna, complete with a white sofa standing in for an analyst’s couch. It was a gentler, funnier version of the type of self-confessional chatter that we’ve grown used to hearing on countless TV talk shows, as Dame Edna pressed her guests to think back on the nicknames and schoolyard taunts they received as children, as well as to recall some fonder memories.

In a city where shrinks are almost as abundant as wannabe stars, Dame Edna’s plumbing of the intersection between self-contemplation and the craving for fame (or pseudo fame) has a particular aptness. Anyone who dreams of being plucked from obscurity and thrust into the spotlight better think twice before sitting in the first eight rows at a Dame Edna show.

But in assuming the role of mother confessor, Dame Edna is well aware of all the false comforters that preside over contemporary popular culture, who pass themselves off as sympathetic listeners and keen students of human nature but are really nothing more than grown-up schoolyard bullies who like pushing other people around. She referred several times to Dr. Schadenfreude, evidently an eminent Freudian of her acquaintance.

Like Hamlet, you see, Dame Edna must be cruel, only to be funny, if not necessarily kind. Her irony lands with the brute force of a rugby scrum. But there’s a genuine empathy in Dame Edna’s imperious manner, a benign, though barbed, relishing of the hapless human condition in the way she twists her ruby-red lips into a disdainful grimace, followed by a broad chuckle.

Perhaps Dame Edna’s larger point in focusing on the AARP crowd is that the mere act of living is a courageous performance, an existential one-woman or one-man show requiring ample quantities of good humor and guts over many days and nights. It’s worth remembering that Barry Humphries, the venerable Australian character actor, painter and Renaissance man who created Mrs. Norm Everage (later Dame Edna) in 1955 and has incarnated her ever since, once played Estragon in the first-ever production of “Waiting for Godot” to be staged Down Under. Take away her butterfly eye-wear and glamorous ensembles, and it’s not too much of a stretch to picture Dame Edna/Humphries as one of Samuel Beckett’s bowler-hatted tramps, interrogating the meaning of existence.

All of us eventually must prepare to shuffle off this mortal coil. But not all of us have the style or wit to do it like Dame Edna. Here’s hoping that her first last tour won’t be anything close to her finale.

-- Reed Johnson

Dame Edna: My First Last Tour,”  Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles.  8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. June 21.   $20 to $90.  (213) 628-2772.

Related: Dame Edna returns to L.A. -- who came to see her?

Caption: Dame Edna (Barry Humphries) during a preview performance of "Dame Edna: My First Last Tour" at the Ahmanson Theatre. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho