Richard Skipper as Carol Channing: Faux, But Still a Diamond

by Michael Dale - Tuesday, June 20, 2006

You'd have to be insane to open a show where you'll be impersonating Carol Channing with a video montage showing the real thing in action. Why on earth would someone dare risk such audience scrutiny by following ten minutes of television clips of the blond gentlemen prefer singing, strutting and cavorting with the likes of Pearl Bailey, George Burns and Goldie Hawn, joyously putting her unique signature on some of Broadway's classic tunes? Well, Richard Skipper is obviously insane. Insanely talented, to borrow a term used by Julia Roberts at last week's Tony Awards.

In Carol Channing in Concert, now playing The Hideaway Room at Helen's, Skipper not only looks and sounds like the original star of Hello, Dolly! and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but his knowledgeable and loving portrayal gives us a realistic glimpse at the woman's passion for performing and desire to make a personal connection with the strangers who flocked to see her. This is a solid acting performance full of quick wit, exacting mimicry and snazzy tunes.

Decked out in a glittery silver dress, accessorized with jewels as large as the star's personality, Skipper's show is styled as a supper club act, circa late 1960's, when Carol Channing, was at the top of her game. (A few of the songs used weren't written until several years later, but we can suspend disbelief.) Paul Stephan, who penned the cool, clubby arrangements, is at piano leading Ritt Henn (bass), Claire Daly (sax), Brian Fishler (drums) and Marc Daine (guitar and banjo). Three backup boys (Edward Carignan, Adam Enright and Kristopher Monroe) provide sharp 3-part harmonies. This is a big show by cabaret standards, with David Gillam's costumes, Shane Matthews' lights and Stephan's musicians contributing to an aura of light, silly sophistication.

Skipper's song selection includes the expected classics from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes ("Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend", "A Little Girl From Little Rock") and Hello, Dolly! ("I Put My Hand In", "Before The Parade Passes By"), along with "Jazz Baby", from Channing's triumphant screen performance in Thoroughly Modern Millie. There's also some entertaining special material like "Blondes", originally sung on TV's Laugh-In as a duet with Goldie Hawn, and "Widow's Weeds", an Ervin Drake novelty number about the advantages of marrying rich, elderly men.

Still going strong, Channing's stage persona has always been camp in itself, and Skipper doesn't exaggerate what was already over-the-top. The crackling voice and extravagant gestures are all there, but never to the point of ridicule. There are some very touching moments, in fact, such as when Channing re-creates her famous "oak leaf" monologue as an introduction to "Before The Parade Passes By." Earlier on, the boys serenade her with the title song from Lorelei as Skipper's Channing looks out at the audience with the kind of tender, loving look that Peter Palmer must have seen when he sang her that ballad every night.

There's plenty of good-natured audience interaction throughout the evening, including a segment where Skipper answers questions from his guests. And his single sentence comment about the film version of Hello, Dolly! is one of the most perfect jokes I've ever heard.

In case you're wondering, Richard Skipper's career as a Carol Channing impersonator does come with the great performer's seal of approval. As the original once said to her mimic, "There are two things I don't like about your show. You look better and you sound better than I do."

Carol Channing in Concert plays June 20th (9:30PM), June 30th (10PM) and July 5th (9:30PM) at The Hideaway Room at Helenšs. Call 212-206-0609 for reservations and details.

Photos of Richard Skipper by Heather Sullivan