Arts & Culture » Theater

Alan Cumming multitasks

by Jim Gladstone

Alan Cumming will bring his solo concert "Legal Immigrant" to the Palace of Fine Arts Theater in SF. Photo: Courtesy the subject
Alan Cumming will bring his solo concert "Legal Immigrant" to the Palace of Fine Arts Theater in SF. Photo: Courtesy the subject  

"Excuse me," says Alan Cumming, through the jangle of Manhattan traffic noise. "I'm hailing a taxi. It's a bit frantic right now."

When, one wonders, is it not?

If idle minds are the devil's workshop, the superficially satyrical Cumming may actually be a candidate for sainthood. He's calling to chat about "Legal Immigrant," his latest solo concert, which he'll bring to the Palace of Fine Arts Theater for a single performance next Wednesday, July 11.

It's a project he pulled together in the midst of shooting the first season of "Instinct," the CBS television series in which he plays an openly gay crime-solving psychologist. In the past year, along with these two major undertakings, Cumming found time to record his segments as host of "Masterpiece Mystery" on PBS; collaborate with his husband, illustrator Grant Shaffer, on a children's book; and tend to the business of his Manhattan nightspot, Club Cumming.

This comes on the heels of seven seasons playing Eli Gold on Cumming's first CBS series, "The Good Wife." During that run, he managed to squeeze in a few other activities, including shooting several feature films, returning to Broadway in his Tony-winning role as the Emcee in "Cabaret," recording three albums, participating in several LGBTQ public service campaigns, and writing three books: the novel "Tommy's Tale," the critically acclaimed memoir "Not My Father's Son," and the scrapbooky essay and photo collection "You Gotta Get Bigger Dreams."

"I did some writing today," says the Scottish Swiss Army Knife as he heads toward a performance of his friend Basil Twist's surreal underwater puppet show. "And I went to yoga.


Alan Cumming supports himself. Photo: Courtesy the subject  

"I'm actually very good at relaxing," Cumming insists. "I'm a very focused person. I can compartmentalize everything."

But even within his cabaret compartment, Cumming can't resist multitasking. "Legal Immigrant" finds him advancing his solo performance career and his liberal political activism simultaneously.

"I've always admired America, and I still think it's a great country," says Cumming, who became a citizen in 2008. "But when the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services changed its mission statement this year to remove the phrase 'a nation of immigrants,' it just made me furious.

"I find it to be a terribly menacing thing, the way the government is dealing with refugees and people who want to move to the United States from abroad. I think we should remind ourselves of the contributions that immigrants have made. Including their contributions to the arts. So while I do a range of songs as usual in this concert, I make a point of taking time to talk about their provenance, to show that the lyricists and composers that make the music Americans love came from everywhere."

As in past solo shows, Cumming manages to infuse his patter and song selection with serious commentary while retaining an impish humor all the while. His repertoire is nothing if not eclectic, ranging from Marlene Dietrich to Pink to Sondheim to his fellow Scots, The Proclaimers.

While Cumming will only play a single performance of "Legal Immigrant" in San Francisco, his 10-night run of the show in Manhattan last month captured both his typical frenzy and his egalitarian spirit in a nutshell.

"The previous time I did a cabaret in New York," explains Cumming, "it was at the Café Carlyle. To be honest, it's so expensive there that most of my friends couldn't afford to see it.

"I had this idea that it would be very fun - and very me - to do the show at the swanky Carlyle at 9 o'clock, and then grab taxis and rush across town to do it again at Joe's Pub, where it's less expensive. My agent didn't think the Carlyle would allow it. But I just insisted."

Cumming's taxi pulls over at the theater.

"Thank you," he says. "I've arrived."


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