`The epitome of cool' sings


Performance: James Naughton will bring his New York cabaret act to Center Stage.

April 05, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

James Naughton has won Tony Awards for his performances in the musicals "Chicago" and "City of Angels," but he admits he used to think of himself as merely an actor who sings.

He's been reconsidering, however, thanks to his New York cabaret act, "Street of Dreams." On Saturday, he will perform an hourlong abridged version of that act at Center Stage Presents, the theater's annual black-tie gala.

"People who thought they knew me from the musicals, when they see this, they go, `I had no idea that you did this,' " Naughton said from New York last week. "It opens up sort of a different world to explore."

Although his show's format is somewhat flexible, Naughton said he would probably sing songs by Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael, Randy Newman and possibly even a song recorded by Elvis Presley at Center Stage. What he won't sing is anything from "Chicago," "City of Angels" or, for that matter, any Broadway musical.

Show music, he explained, "is just not the kind of music that I really gravitate toward." Instead, his tastes run more to jazz and pop.

He said he does occasionally get requests for numbers from "Chicago," in particular.

But he feels a song such as "All I Care About Is Love" is less effective without the Broadway staging, in which he was surrounded by chorus girls wearing little more than giant feathered fans. "When the ladies aren't there with the fans, it leaves a little something to be desired in my mind," he said.

Naughton has two connections with Center Stage. In 1989 he appeared in artistic director Irene Lewis' production of Tennessee Williams' "The Rose Tattoo" at the Williamstown Theater Festival in Massachusetts, a theater with which he has a long association (he will direct Arthur Miller's "The Price" there this summer). And in 1994, his son, Greg, played the doomed son in Ibsen's "Ghosts" at Center Stage.

Theater has become the Naughton family business. Greg is artistic director of off-Broadway's Blue Light Theatre, where he, sister Keira and James have all acted. Naughton's wife, Pamela, a social worker by training, is Blue Light's director of development.

Besides performing "Street of Dreams" (which closes in New York on April 11) and directing "The Price," James Naughton continues to do voice-overs for Jeep, Chase Manhattan Bank and KitchenAid, and he also narrates Court TV's "Crime Stories." In addition, he will be seen in two forthcoming films -- "Oxygen" and "Labor Pains."

Last Friday, Liz Smith mentioned him as a possibility to play the late Joe DiMaggio in a TV movie about DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe. The item came as a welcome surprise to Naughton, who played college ball at Brown University. "I had dreams of being a professional baseball player," he said. "It's always nice to be considered for something like that." Meanwhile, he continues to journey down "Street of Dreams." The show earned him a nomination for best "major male vocalist" in this year's MAC Awards (Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs). The winners will be announced tonight.

Naughton's act has been well received by audiences as well as critics, who have not only praised his rich baritone but also described him as "the epitome of cool." Asked if he thinks himself that way, Naughton paused. "I guess it beats being thought of as a hothead," he said. "The thing I'm glad about is that people say I seem to be enjoying [the show] and having fun and that makes them enjoy it and have fun, and I think that's pretty good."

Center Stage Presents will be held at the theater, 700 N. Calvert St. The event includes a pre-performance cocktail reception at 7 p.m.; Naughton's performance at 8: 30 p.m.; a buffet supper at 9: 30 p.m.; a silent auction of Center Stage memorabilia; and dancing to Tony Berry & New Money. Tickets are $175 and $250 and benefit the theater's artistic and educational programs. Call 410-685-3200, Ext. 434.

An award for Smith

Speaking of galas, Dame Maggie Smith will become the 12th recipient of the Shakespeare Theatre's Will Award at a gala in Washington Saturday. A Tony Award-winner for "Lettice and Lovage," Smith is also a two-time Oscar winner, for "California Suite" and "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie."

Among the highlights of her Shakespearean career are her portrayal of Desdemona opposite Laurence Olivier's Othello at the Royal National Theatre and appearances at the Canadian Stratford Festival between 1976-1980.

Saturday's gala will also honor some of the theater's guest artists from previous seasons -- Keith Baxter, David Birney, Pat Carroll, Dixie Carter, Harry Hamlin, Stacy Keach, Kelly McGillis, David Selby, Richard Thomas, Paul Winfield and Teresa Wright -- each of whom will receive a Millennium Recognition Award.

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