"Were you born a woman?" seems a terribly impolite question. As such, you couldn't blame a girl for abruptly hanging up if asked this during a telephone conversation. But being a Carol Channing imitator, Maggie Graham didn't take it as a slight on her femininity. Instead, she laughed warmly. "I'm so glad you asked that question," said the Red Bank native, 33, who is bringing her one-woman show "Carol Channeling" to The Starving Artist in Ocean Grove. "I'm not offended by that at all. It's not the first time I've heard that. People have asked that about Carol herself. I am one of the only women who do imitate her. I think that's a fun part of the show ... the mystery of it."
Channing is Graham's flagship impression during her show, but Graham also "channels" such entertainers as Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Ethel Merman, Julie Andrews and Barbra Streisand.
Graham was raised in Monmouth Beach as the youngest of eight children in a family with theatrical ties. Her mother was an opera singer. "I grew up immersed in theater," she says. "All of my siblings studied theater, worked in theater." But this theatrical background wasn't what provided her introduction to Channing. "I can't remember the very first time I saw her; I was so young," Graham says. "I used to watch Captain Kangaroo when I was 3; she was on it a few times. But she really sunk in when I was 6 or 7 and she did "The Muppet Show. She sang "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend. I became a fan."
Has Graham met her idol? "I haven't yet," she says. "I would love to. I saw her perform once. I saw her one-woman show, "The First 80 Years are the Hardest,' in October of 2005 in New York. She was phenomenal. It was amazing how she still performed with a gusto that many younger performers don't have."
Graham wrote her show in 2005 and began performing it the following year. "When I first started the show, it was like training for a marathon," she says. "Now, it just flows. I get onstage, and the performers all join me. I joke that they show up and make their appearances. There is a set script for those wonderful evenings when that works. But with this show, there is a lot of give and take with the audience. It's so alive; you have to be able to improvise. Things pop up."
Graham says it's accurate to call her show an homage. "There is definitely humor to it," she says, "but it comes from the sincerity of the performers. I'm not bashing them. That wouldn't be Carol's spirit."
Graham says the gay community has been well represented in the audiences for Carol Channeling. "Well," she says, "the show is custom-tailored to the musical-theater obsessed, and that would certainly include the gay community. I definitely appreciate it."
Graham has performed "Carol Channeling" at Joe's Pub at the Public Theater and Upstairs at Rose's Turn, both in New York; and previously at The Starving Artist.
The actress, who will be accompanied by pianist Christynn Cardino, has loftier ambitions for the show. "I'd like to do a full-scale run in New York ... not just at a cabaret, but in a theater with a full orchestra," she says. "I would also love to do a tour of the country. That would be such a Carol thing to do. I started this saying I don't know where it will go. But I just had to get it out."
She does Channing, Garland , Merman, and LuPone, but remarkably Maggie Graham is no drag queen. As I was leaving Maggie Graham's entertaining cabaret "Carol Channeling," an elderly audience member turned to her companion and asked, "Was she a drag queen?" Well, no, she's actually a beautiful and talented young woman with a powerful set of pipes who in her 70- minute act impersonates Carol Channing channeling various living and deceased divas of the Great White Way from Garland through LuPone to Chenowith and Menzel. Graham has a super voice and can bang out a brassy number with the best of them. Wearing her frowzy ash blond Channing wig and a red sequin drop hem dress with fringe, she plants her legs like fresh saplings on the stage and leans slightly forward in the best ex-chorus gal turned Broadway belter style. She obviously loves all these gals and she sings some of their biggest hits straight, with no embellishments or topically changed lyrics. Her voice is all throaty gravel when she does Channing's signature "Diamonds Are a Girls Best Friend" and brilliantly captures LuPone's nasal electric syrup tones for "You're the Top." "Carol Channeling" is a really fun evening and Graham has the zest and verve to pull it off, especially in the caring hands of her cutie pie musical director and pianist Aaron Beck. What's great about Graham is her real stage presence that shines through the impersonation. I mean it as a compliment that the act made me crazy curious to hear how she would sing, just her, not through the lens of anyone else's style. I'll bet it would be something to see and hear.
Maggie Graham knows that imitating the legendary star is usually the province of drag queens. But that hasn't stopped her from creating a one-woman show, "Carol Channeling, Caroling!," at the Starving Artist's Back Room Cabaret Theater in Ocean Grove this weekend.
"Yes, I know men usually play her," says Graham, "yet I insist that I love Carol Channing just as much as they. I have ever since I was a little girl, seeing her make guest appearances on 'Captain Kangaroo.'"
Soon thereafter, young Maggie would imitate Channing's voice -- as well as plenty of other stars.
"I was always entertaining my parents and my seven brothers and sisters -- I'm the youngest of eight -- and they were all so encouraging that I've always kept at it." While she appeared throughout Monmouth County in community theater during her teen years, she'd always come back to impersonations.
With an array of voices at her disposal, Graham created a show that would incorporate them all. Her plot has Channing coming back from the dentist after getting a tooth filled. Now it acts as a radio transmitter that picks up the voices of other stars.
Graham envisioned a show honoring Channing before she even knew if her face could pass as an acceptable facsimile. Once she donned the white wig and the oh-so-wide jungle-red lipstick, she was pleased enough with the results to go ahead.
She knew that she'd do Channing's trademark songs: "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" (from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes") and "So Long, Dearie" (from "Hello, Dolly!"). Says Graham, "I've spent countless hours listening to her recordings, so I can make certain that every syllable sounds exactly right."
Over the last 18 months, she settled on 17 other stars whom she could effectively ape. They range from the world of jazz (Ella Fitzgerald), pop (Brenda Lee), country (Dolly Parton), and, of course, Broadway.
"I have Ethel Merman and Patti LuPone sing 'You're the Top' to each other," she says.
The hour-long show has a decided holiday slant, though. That allows Graham to do such famous yuletide hits as "Santa Baby" (in Eartha Kitt's voice, of course), "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," Ã la Judy Garland, and a Mariah Carey "All I Want for Christmas." They all lead to the evening's grand finale, "Twelve Days of Christmas," which Graham turns into "Twelve Divas of Christmas." It allows a dozen of the female stars heard earlier to take a line of the famous evergreen.
The Fanwood resident is married to Steve Graham, who's a frequent performer at the Growing Stage in Netcong. They have two children, and while one parent works, the other baby-sits. It's allowed her to spend time on the musical stage as Evita, Marian the Librarian and Mary Magdalene.
Now, though, comes "Carol Channeling, Caroling." "The show is served well with the presence of liquor," Graham says. "Ocean Grove, though, is a dry town. Carol and I and all the others will have to provide the spirits."
Who knew that Carol Channing could do realistic impressions of a wide variety of famous women singers, past and present? Not just Judy Garland and Ethel Merman, mind you (heck, I can do them), but even Patti LuPone, Julie Andrews, Doris Day (Doris Day? You serious?), Marlene Dietrich and the two Wicked witches, Kristen Chenoweth and Idina Menzel.
Actually, it's Carol Channing once removed, filtered through the personality of one Maggie Graham, whose hour-long cabaret turn, Carol Channeling, features impressions of ten famous female vocalists.
Assuming the brassy persona of the erstwhile Lorelei Lee and Dolly Levi, Graham imitates all their voices, capturing enough of each to turn her one-woman concert into an ensemble event.
She bounds onto the stage in a bright red outfit and a bouffant blonde wig and launches into "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend", dispelling any doubt that this is the formidable Ms. Channing. From there Graham segues into Dietrich and Garland and the Diva Parade is on.
Did LuPone and Merman ever sing together? They do here, dueting on "You're the Top". Graham zips in and out of the voices; it's a neat trick well done. The rest of the hour includes numbers by each of the featured personalities. Bernadette Peters shows up, and yes, so does Doris Day. (Sorta' sounds like Deedee, too.)
Ms. Graham lampoons a few of the women, including Channing (How could she not?), but her best work is with the less extreme stylists. She nails Julie Andrews's accent, both speaking and singing, and her Kristen Chenoweth is spot on. "Defying Gravity" gets the Idina Menzel-big finish, and Bernadette Peters's tremolo is intact.
These days it’s déjà vu all over again for musicals. Not only is Broadway playing host to nine revivals, but some musicals from the past are also popping up elsewhere.
Carol Channeling, Caroling! is not an old musical, but certainly involves the star of some. Imagine – a woman is impersonating Carol Channing! Maggie Graham, in a red dress with more sequins on it than the one mentioned in Race (and around her neck, I DO mean rhinestones), has Channing’s dazed looks, head thrust, and super-straight extended arms flapping out from her body. Add to those the seeming absent-mindedness, the growl, the clenched-teeth talk, the tendency to pronounce words that start with “s” as “sh” (“shweet”), and, of course, the “Yay-ess!”
Graham, though, plays many more icons that Channing. She borrows a plot point from the 1943 musical Something for the Boys, in which Ethel Merman started picking up radio signals from her teeth fillings; Channing, though, gets divas instead.
The Merm, in fact, is one whom Channing is channeling, along with Bernadette, Idina, Julie, Angela, Liza, Eartha, Barbra, Patti, Judy, and Kristin with her helium-inspired voice. It all comes to a phenomenal head when many of these and others do “The 12 Days of Christmas” – with each diva taking a line. Merman gets a jaunty “three French hens,” Judy a pensive “two turtle doves,” but Idina tears down the house with her voice-defying” Five golden ri-ing-innngs!” I daresay I’ll remember this “12 Days of Christmas” now and forever, and will think of nothing else whenever I hear the song.
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