“It’s been a very unusual night,” said Cyndi Lauper, toward the end of the first of two shows she was doing at the Hollywood Bowl over the weekend. This is somebody who knows unusual — she did advertise it as part of her appeal in her very first album title 36 years ago — so when Lauper herself kept reiterating how “weird” the evening had been, you could put some stock in it.
Actually, her set looked like it was spinning out into disaster in the first few songs, before it turned into triumph. Needless to say, if you’re going to have a trajectory between those two extremes in a show, this is the direction you want it to go. And how much more fun (and memorable) is it to see a concert that looks like it might go off the rails before it gets firmly on than one that’s great from start to finish?Lauper’s second night at the Bowl seemed destined to go much more smoothly, but Night 1 attendees are probably glad they had tickets for the one they did, since it was fascinating to see the “Kinky Boots” co-author work through some really serious kinks.
The victory did claim one casualty: the bee that Lauper stepped on with her bare foot during the fourth number, the onstage corpse of which she kept returning to. “I mean, that poor bastard, he’s worse off than me,” she said. “I’m tough, but really? The guy is dead over there, but he died killing me. My God. It’s just one of them weeks, you know?”
It had already started off as being one of those shows. Lauper was performing with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, and for the first few numbers, something wasn’t clicking (literally, in part, in that she commented on the lack of a click track to count off the song intros that she was expecting). She put her hand to her in-ear monitor in the opening “All Through the Night,” clearly having some problems that rendered her pitchy and something less than the bravura singer all other recent reports from the front have recently indicated her to still be. Even after she stopped tugging at her earpiece, she still kept her eyes closed as she sang, seeming intently determined to find both a band and a cast of orchestral dozens to relate to in the mix.
She sat down on the drum riser to take off her glittery boots and go barefoot, and that proved to be a medical fashion faux pas when, midway through “She Bop,” she suffered one of the calamities that every star fears during shed season — a mutually losing contest between woman and insect. That’s one way to severely de-eroticize the number, and to potentially derail a set. Lauper wondered aloud afterward whether she might be allergic, apparently never having been stung before, and fretted over whether limping through the rest of the show barefoot or in a set of uncomplimentary flip-flops was her best option for getting all through the night. It was a bad-karma cluster.
Then, getting to “Shine,” she actually invited further disaster — by hobbling deep into the Bowl crowd in those floppy sandals, apparently much deeper than anyone had prepared for, since the spotlights lost her in the darkness for a while, even as the crowds that could make her out cheered. (“I gotta bring a flashlight — I’m sorry,” she apologized afterward.) And here’s where it got really unusual: She found herself out there in those brief moments of communal darkness. Instead of getting even further out of sync with the mass of players back on the lit stage, she connected with them. Every note that was meant to be soaring soared. There was an MF-ing diva out there in the shadows, and by the time she limped back onto the stage, she was a new woman and new performer.
And from then on, it was the Cyndi Lauper show of your dreams, if your dreams happen to include swelling violins and portentous cellos augmenting even the rockers, and could allow for a few additional bee jokes to go along with the semi-prepared patter that the singer had planned to deliver about the power of women’s viewpoints in pop and overcoming the country’s increasingly ugly mood.
What made the difference in the show’s happy, drastic turnaround? “You know, I know a doctor who believes in bee stings,” she said later on, as if she might herself entertain subscribing to the theory that the sting actually gave her some bite.
It was tempting to go back for night 2, not only to find out what kind of footwear Lauper settled on after further consideration and how that limp was coming along, but because it is an enviable one-off — or two-off — any time Thomas Wilkins is conducting the Bowl house players with fresh orchestrations for rock songs. However much potential for hokum that concept has, the additional arrangements are always done with care and taste, whether the Bowl Orchestra’s adding lush new layers for the Go-Go’s or Steely Dan.
That extended here to Lauper’s material. Yes, there’s some irony in adding dozens of players to a song about how fewer people is better: “She-Bop.” Sometimes the nod or wink to the seeming mismatch between pop froth and orchestral pomp is intentional. That was the case here when Lauper was about to launch into “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” only to remember and stop herself: “Oh, right. A special treat.” That was a grand introduction for the signature song by Steve Gaboury on grand piano — a lead-in so out of character with the song that was to follow that you could only take it as a lovely gag. On the other hand, there was no silly juxtaposition intended when the orchestra played along on “Money Changes Everything,” arguably one of the darker rock songs ever written that isn’t actually about death. Adding that much sweep to that much cynicism, while Lauper’s band moved through its regular moves, was a potent combo.
Also on the plus side, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” finally got a real xylophone solo, as opposed to the fake synth one it’s had for the last three and a half decades.
Of course, orchestra and band both got a lot of rests as Lauper moved through what seemed like excerpts from a socially conscious comedy routine or one-woman show — this particular night with added quips about how her unwanted flip-flops were making her “kinda resemble the women in my neighborhood.”
There was also an undue amount of dulcimer humor, with Lauper taking up the instrument for both “Time After Time” and the closing “True Colors.” “You know, there was many a manager that said, ‘What the hell is that she’s playing now? Why can’t she just sing? What’s the matter with her?’ Obviously, a lot. This is a dulcimer. Granted, I ain’t no Jean Ritchie, but I like it. … You know, I’m only playing this because no one ever wanted me to. Why, oh, why was I cursed with this dulcimer talent?”
By show’s end — which followed a performance of the anthemic “A Part Hate” with a choir from a local school, the Country School — it still wasn’t clear if Lauper understood just how well the night had turned out, at least from an audience standpoint. “I apologize it didn’t go the way I wanted it to go,” she said, as the crowd protested. “I apologize for stepping on the bee.” It was a little like Peter Parker apologizing for being bitten by the radioactive spider, even if the slightly delayed effect was just Lauper getting in touch with her own inherent superpowers.
Opening the show was a singer who, unbeknownst to the audience, at least initially, is one of the most esteemed jazz singers alive, Cecile McLorin Salvant. She and the Aaron Diehl Trio came on unannounced, to no noticeable immediate effect on the mass chatter level as Bowl patrons continued their dinners. So her superpower for the night turned out to be her ability to gradually diminish the audience yakking level by about 30 decibels as members of the crowd eventually realized there was something extraordinary happening on stage.
The multiply Grammy-winning McLorin Salvant has been in this spot before at the Bowl; a couple of years ago, she opened for Bryan Ferry. Her band was particularly frenetic that night, but less so this time, where the emphasis was a bit more on her conventionally pop audience-friendly side, with choices like “On the Street Where You Live” (which still beats “Every Breath You Take” as music’s greatest stalker song).
Maybe her nerviest move was to perform “The Trolley Song,” which takes some chutzpah, post-Sweeney Sisters. You may suspect part of why she loves the ancient classic is for the chance to sing the line “and my hair piled high upon my head” — McLorin Salvant is very much about having no hair at all on her head — but really it’s about the opportunity for herself and a world-class soloist like pianist Diehl to subvert expectations within the realm of what seems safest. As Lauper said twice during her set, and as McLorin Salvant would surely agree in principle, “No balls, no glory.”