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Alan Cumming brings a musical act as unique as his story

Alan Cumming: “To me, sappy means sentiment, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

Courtesy of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts

Alan Cumming: “To me, sappy means sentiment, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

TAMPA

When a Broadway star gives a solo concert, expect a reprise of his hits, a few other covers and behind-the-scenes anecdotes.

Alan Cumming doesn't do the expected, never has.

The Tony-winning actor (Cabaret, 1998), now in his seventh season as Eli Gold in The Good Wife, performs Sunday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. The song list bounces from Annie Lennox to Adele, Billy Joel to Lady Gaga and Stephen Sondheim. Accompanied by cellist Eleanor Norton, the singer may also touch on Miley Cyrus or Avril Lavigne, and will almost certainly knock out The Ladies Who Lunch, with a hat tip to Elaine Stritch.

Given that kind of range and the acidic tone of that last number from Company, this show's title, Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs, is almost overly self-deprecating. It turns out, modesty isn't what he's going for. Cumming, who turns 51 this week, recently teased patrons of Café Carlyle, the intimate Upper East Side restaurant where the likes of Judy Collins, Woody Allen and Sutton Foster have also performed, about their ignorance of theater history and temporarily renamed Studio 54 "Club Cumming" in tableside neon signs.

"In America, 'sappy' has a different meaning," Cumming said in a phone interview. "To me, sappy means sentiment, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Where I come from, we feel things, we bring things to the surface. The way I do it is more aggressive than people realize."

Cumming grew up in Perthshire, Scotland, the son of a forester who beat him frequently and once cut his hair off with sheep shears. He began acting while a student at what is now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and was soon acting in theaters and a popular soap opera.

Landing the role of Hamlet in 1993 led to deep personal changes.

"Hamlet was a catalyst for dealing with my father," Cumming said. "Hamlet didn't have great relations with his father. It was a bit of an onslaught in my life."

His marriage to actor Hilary Lyon ended. (Cumming subsequently came out as bisexual; he lives in New York with his husband, illustrator Grant Shaffer.) By the time he debuted on Broadway with Cabaret, Cumming was on his way to a diverse career in movies, television and on stage, earning dozens of awards.

Most of his roles, from spy thrillers to romantic comedies to Sex and the City or hosting the Tonys in 2015, evoke more humor than the perpetually uptight Eli on The Good Wife. Cumming never forgot his Shakespearean roots, and in 2012 opened a one-man version of Macbeth, playing all of the characters.

"It was one of the most challenging parts," he said of Macbeth. "I thought I might die."

Last year, the man who describes himself as "beyond eclectic" on his website launched a concert tour. He performed numerous concerts with Liza Minnelli, a friend and mentor.

"She was a great help with how you approach a song," Cumming said, "the way she stays so vulnerable and yet, at the same time, she is completely an ace in showmanship and delivering. I love her and marvel at her."

Cumming believes authenticity is his most important asset, one he hopes will define each performance. He weaves personal stories between songs, some of them cutting deep into his past.

In 2010, he participated in the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are?, which traces the family trees of celebrities. As a result he found his father, whom he had not seen in 20 years.

"It turned my life upside down," he said, "brought up a lot of things I thought I had made peace with."

He has since forgiven his father. "You ask yourself, 'Am I really going to hold onto this in my life, this stone holding my heart because I won't forgive you?' " he said. "It doesn't change what happened, but it helps you escape the shackles of not forgiving."

Cumming wrote a memoir in 2014 about delving into his family past. In recent weeks, Not My Father's Son has climbed to No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs

The show starts at 7 p.m. Sunday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. $35.50-$55.50. (813) 229-7827 or strazcenter.org.

Alan Cumming brings a musical act as unique as his story 01/20/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 20, 2016 10:50am]
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