Leave it to the brilliantly delightful Debra Monk to seamlessly and successfully pull off a performance that combined rock 'n' roll, classic church hymnals, accompanying herself on the drums, the theme from Exodus and the humor one might more likely hear over a couple of beers than white wine.
As Monk celebrated her 65th birthday in an all-star benefit concert on February 24, 2014, the Tony and Emmy award winner accomplished all that and more in an raucous, high-energy night that included special guest performances by many of her closest friends.
Debra Monk Birthday Bash, billed as "Totally Hot and a Little Dirty," raised $140,355 for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
Monk took the stage at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College singing "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," starting a journey through her favorite songs – from Van Morrison to Prince, Elton John to Freddie Mercury, Bonnie Raitt and, of course, Kander and Ebb. For the evening's song list, view the program.
The concert ran the gamut from sentimental to outrageous. A seductive take on Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" started with Broadway hunk Jim Newman wooing Monk. Half-way through the song, they were joined by lingerie-wearing Charlotte d'Amboise and Andrea Martin, who slithered onto the stage and ultimately into a comical foursome with Monk and Newman.
Ron Rifkin showed that at 74 he could easily keep pace with high-stepping dance moves in a rocking duet of "Mockingbird," while famed director Scott Ellis returned to his performance roots for an animated and free-spirited version of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough."
Brandon Victor Dixon, the sexy star of Motown The Musical, set Monk's temperature rising with a steamy duet of "Something About the Way You Look Tonight." Longtime buddy Victor Garber shared the spotlight with Monk for a touching rendition of "You've Got a Friend."
Much of the night featured Monk performing her favorite songs solo. She celebrated her connection to her church with the classic gospel hymn "His Eye is on the Sparrow." She showcased her ageless talent by stepping back into her Tony-nominated role from the 1997 production of Steel Pier, transforming into "Everybody's Girl" once again.
Monk shared that she never had kids of her own, joking, "I didn't want to dip into those gene pools," referencing her two marriages. But she's been blessed with six godchildren, to whom she dedicated the beautiful "When I First Saw You" from Dreamgirls.
And then there were raucous moments, like her "sex medley" of "Tell Me Something Good," "Kiss" and "Do That to Me One More Time."
Interjected throughout the evening were some of Monk's favorite dirty jokes.
"A woman walks into a drug store and she says, 'Where are the batteries?' And the guy, motioning with his finger, says, 'Come this way.' The woman says, 'If I could come that way, I wouldn't need the batteries!"
The concert featured three talented back-up singers, which Monk dubbed "The Totally Hots" – Joe Grandy, Chuck Ragsdale and Julius Thomas III – and an exceptional 10-piece band.
To the surprise of many in the audience, Monk demonstrated a prowess on the drums, a favorite pastime of hers. Sticks in hand, Monk worked the drums and sang "Purple Rain," "Real Man" and her finale, "The Theme from Exodus," which concluded with a deadpan David Hyde Pierce walking on stage to perform the final cymbal crash.
Debra Monk Birthday Bash was directed and choreographed by JoAnn M. Hunter with music direction by Mary-Mitchell Campbell and David Gardos. Lighting design was by Jamie Roderick; sound design by Brian Ronan.
Monk, who's been nominated four times for the Tony Award and won for Featured Actress in a Play for Redwood Curtain, conceived and wrote the 90-minute show especially for the night. At a reception after the concert, Monk was surprised with an elaborate four-tier birthday cake, created by Fallon, with each tier showcasing the Broadway shows in which she's appeared.
"I wanted to make my 65th birthday something truly special and a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS was the perfect answer," Monk said. "By singing some great songs, sharing a few jokes and having fun with my closest friends, I hope I at least helped make a small difference for an organization so near and dear to my heart."
And if an audience full of glow stick-waving fans is any indication, she certainly did.
Photos by Monica Simoes