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Theatre in Review: Hello Dillie! (Brits Off Broadway/59E59)

Photo: Carol Rosegg

If you're looking for a cabaret entertainment with the fizz and bittersweet kick of a gin and tonic, consider Dillie Keane's intimate get-together at 59E59. A member of the music/comedy trio Fascinating Aida, she seems to be a direct descendant of the musical wits who thrived in the heyday of West End revues -- personalities like Noël Coward, Beatrice Lillie, and Hermione Gingold. (With her throaty delivery, world-weary philosophy, and cool, crisp way with an insult, she most resembles the last). Entering briskly, the sixtyish Keane hoists herself up on the piano with some difficulty, throws herself back and groans, "Oh God, I'm alive," then launches into a song about waking up in a strange bedroom in Rome, having spent the night with a person (or persons) unknown. As she cheerfully informs us afterwards, the number is titled "My Average Morning."

Working in a style of song that wouldn't have been out of place in the 1950s, she nevertheless offers up an array of bright and biting observations about life in an era defined by Internet dating, Facebook, Zumba classes, The History Channel, and Downton Abbey. (The numbers are by Keane, often in collaboration with her Fascinating Aida colleague Adèle Anderson.) Love is her real subject, and she dissects it with her own unsparing clinical technique. She offers a bouncy ditty about men who disappoint ("His nice white teeth came out at night/And the sock down his jeans was what made 'em tight/Oh! My shattered illusions!"); offers a slapstick view of the travails of sex in later life ("But take us both to heaven once you've had your medication/And I'll close my eyes to hide your look of grim determination"); and suggests that no lover will ever top the enduring joys of chocolate ("Pudding in the Ritz!"). She does a demolition job on Brecht-Weill songs of sorrow in "Go Back to Surabaya, Johnny" ("Where's my necklace? Where's my bracelet? Where's my cameo?/Of course you stole them and then buggered off to Borneo/I tried to stop you as you left shouting 'Property is theft!'"), and she offers a notably dry-eyed account of a woman returning to a man who is nothing but trouble. ("I'm aware/That we are not a very well-matched pair/Still, I'm the Ginger to your Fred Astaire/Like a horse to the water/Or a lamb to the slaughter.")

A gifted raconteur, she recalls a number of romantic mishaps, including a date with a suitor who proudly announced, "I am the most feared man in the cheese business." She spins three very different stories about fortune tellers; one of them -- who seemed to predict the death of her closest female friend -- that cues a quietly exquisite song of mourning. ("There's a bank of old memories that are close-up and dusty/They only mean something to me/Just a few treasured photos, your name in my phone book/And All About Eve on TV.") Another touching song, "Love Late," about getting back into the romance game, which allows Keane to talk about finding happiness with her partner of twenty years, an Irishman with whom she shares a farm near Oxford. (As she notes, her songs often seem to prefigure events to come in her life; she offers as evidence "Out of Practice," about someone gearing up to get back into the dating game, scars intact, noting that she wrote it not long before meeting her partner.)

If her show is sometimes deeply felt, it is never maudlin, and her wicked, coruscating sense of humor is never out of reach. She even cheerfully bullies the audience into creating a tap-dance sound effect to accompany one song, instructing them to take a pair of coins and rap on them on their tables. (Like many such attractions at 59E59, this one features cabaret seating.) She is also accompanied by the gifted pianist Michael Roulston, who deftly and efficiently anticipates her every mood and who also plays a mean barrel-house tune when the occasion calls for it.

A seemingly scattered, madcap character with lethal aim when she chooses to use it, Dillie Keane has a style and sensibility all her own. She's like an exotic cocktail that, at first taste, shocks a bit. A few sips later, you can't believe you've been missing out on it so long. -- David Barbour

(17 June 2016)

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