Entertainment » Theatre

The Cat Lady Cometh (to Oberon)

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Monday Oct 21, 2013

Mrs. Smith (aka David Hanbury) first appeared in Cambridge nearly three years ago. Since then the lady of means has developed a musical show that comes to Oberon this week. EDGE spoke to Hanbury about the show.

The last time EDGE caught up with David Hanbury, he was premiering a new work as part of the American Repertory Theater's Emerging Arts Festival in the spring of 2010 at Oberon.

That show introduced a new character the Minneapolis-based actor was developing named Mrs. Smith, whom he described at the time as "a lady of means who loves all cats and some people."

That production must have made an impression because Mrs. Smith is back, again at Oberon - this time with music. "Mrs. Smith Live" will play at the Cambridge venue on Wednesday Oct. 23, 2013 and Friday Oct. 25, 2013; both nights at 7:30 p.m., Doors open at 7:00 p.m. For more information, visit the Oberon website.

Mrs. Smith (aka Hanbury) uses the format of the Broadway-style, one-woman show to tell her bizarre life story through song and dance with the help of her dapper Broadway Boys "Along the way," according to her press agent, "Smith puts her indelibly surreal stamp on Great White Way favorites such as 'Cabaret,' 'One Night in Bangkok,' 'The Cat That Got Away' and 'The Ladies Who Lunch.'"

"The production, directed and choreographed by frequent collaborator, Andrew Rasmussen is a delightful and fast-paced melange of all things Broadway paying homage, and at the same time sending up archetypal show-biz moments from "Gypsy" to "Funny Girl" and all the way to "Chicago" and beyond. Rasmussen's skillful pacing and witty choreography have been lauded by critics as "glorious!"  And when Smithy sings favorites by Streisand, Garland, and Minnelli in their original keys you will find audiences leaping to their feet and cheering."

Hanbury is no stranger to Boston. He made a number of memorable appearances with the Gold Dust Orphans, most notably as the hysterical mother, Lydia, in Ryan Landry’s lampoon of Hitchcock’s "The Birds," called "The Gulls." In that piece Hanbury provided five of the funniest minutes ever seen in the Orphans’ long history. It is also easy to see how Lydia inspired Mrs. Smith.

Hanbury also made quite an impression with his autobiographical show "Personal Instrument," which combined his gay sensibility with rock with the kind of energy that brings to mind Hedwig (of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch.") That, it turns out, is a role that Hanbury played at Actors Theatre of Louisville after he left Boston.

That was after he attended the well-regarded Brown University MFA Acting Program and its professional affiliate, the Trinity Repertory Theatre. At the Providence theater he played in works by Shakespeare, Dickens and Moliere. New York followed, where he was Judy Garland in a play presented by the experimental troupe Mabou Mines and a heavy-metal rocker in an off-Broadway musical called "Stairway to Hell."

He relocated to Minneapolis, where he currently lives, where he’s worked on numerous theater projects, including developing "Mrs. Smith Live!" and a children’s musical based on the character. EDGE spoke to Hanbury about his demanding alter-ego.

EDGE: When you were at Oberon in 2010, it was to introduce Mrs. Smith as a character, was it not?

David Hanbury: Yes, it was a ridiculous ’happening’ type show which premiered at ART’s Emerging America Festival. We had a lot of fun with that show.

EDGE: At that time you described Mrs. Smith as ’a lady of means who loves all cats and some people.’ But just where did she come from?

David Hanbury: I first performed Mrs. Smith at Ryan Landry’s ’Showgirls’ in Provincetown. I shelved the character for many years while I worked on other things and started really developing it a few years ago in Minneapolis and then it sort of took off.

EDGE: She also was searching for her cat Carlyle - has she found him?

David Hanbury: No, Carlyle is still at large. But Mrs. Smith is assured (on a daily basis) by World Famous Pet Psychic to the Stars Miss Sylvia Cleo that he is alive out there. He’s actually thriving out there. He’s just OUT THERE! It’s almost more than poor Smithy can handle.

EDGE: How has she coped with her loss?

David Hanbury: Psychoanalysis, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Primal Scream/Pillow-Punching Therapy, Aromatherapy, Homeopathetic remedies, 12-Step Fellowships, you name it, Smithy has tried it.

EDGE: Can this show be considered part of her therapy for her loss?

David Hanbury: Absolutely! Mrs. Smith has always found performing to be a catharsis. And in this show she is going to CATHART all over the audience. It’s basically a blood-bath of confused emotions all set to SONG AND DANCE!

EDGE: When did the piece become a musical?

David Hanbury: It was a musical from the very beginning. I had started singing the hits of Judy, Liza, and Barbra at little gigs here and there and found they really merged well with the character. The late-stage diva in turmoil (especially Judy) really fits with Mrs. Smith in a way that is both funny and weirdly touching.

I went to director Andrew Rasmussen with the idea and we dove in to creating the show together. Andrew is a real razzle-dazzle showbiz musical comedy genius so he brought a level of understanding of the form of musical comedy to the piece that I don’t have.

EDGE: Mrs. Smith has some support from her ’dapper Broadway Boys’ (according to a press release). And just who are they?

David Hanbury: Martino Mayotte and Reid Harmson are Mrs. Smith’s Broadway Boys. They sing, dance, perform puppetry and all manner of prop comedy. They are A+ class acts.

EDGE: Does Mrs. Smith ever transgress with the Boys?

David Hanbury: The worst transgression she every committed was asking them to pick up her dry cleaning on the way to the show. They put up with a lot from Smithy but that crossed a line and they made a "boundary."

EDGE: How much of the show is improvised?

David Hanbury: The first act of the show is organized like a movie musical of Mrs. Smith’s life story. Act II shifts into a cabaret show and there’s a lot of banter and back and forth with the audience. Mrs. Smith is always going to the audience for love, support, encouragement. But don’t worry, it’s not the annoying or boring kind of audience participation!

EDGE: When you were in Boston, you did a piece where you were a rock musician. Does Mrs. Smith play an electric guitar?

David Hanbury: She does. That element really lifts the character into the Surreal. How and why Smithy took up shredding on electric guitar is a longer tale than I can go into here. Suffice to say it involves a Norwegian Death Metal Band, a kidnapping attempt, and the Stockholm Syndrome.

EDGE: I see you’re developing the piece for a television series for children. What makes you think that she’s nurturing enough to appeal to children?

David Hanbury: Children’s programming for Mrs. Smith falls within the style of PeeWee Herman and the Muppets. We’re really interested in returning kids’ shows to those roots because those were shows that kids and grown-ups loved. In the childrens’ show Mrs. Smith is surrounded by her household staff who help keep her on track and put up with all her crazy quirks. Of course, Carlyle is in the show as well, and he’s always running off and getting into crazy adventures.

EDGE: You also developed a musical for children featuring the character. Will this show have more adult content?

David Hanbury: Mrs. Smith isn’t a "blue humor" character at all, actually. Perhaps because I’m performing "in drag" people think I’m going to be biting and mean or do dirty humor. Mrs. Smith is a lady of a certain age and social standing, and her craziness is always being squeezed through that New England, finishing school brand of propriety.

I think the only thing "adult" about the show "Mrs. Smith Live!" is that there are references to Broadway shows and lore that will go over kids’ heads. That said, parents have brought their kids to "Mrs. Smith Live!" and although they might not fully appreciate my take-off on "The Ladies Who Lunch," they love the puppetry, singing and dancing, and Mrs. Smith in general. I say, bring the kids and maybe we’ll have a few new fans of musical theater when we’re done!

EDGE: Are you a cat person?

David Hanbury: I love cats and dogs, actually. Mrs. Smith cannot abide a dog, not for a single moment. She protests that they’re wolves and it’s not a question of if but when they maul you and your family. Mrs. Smith is a definitely a "cat person," but more specifically she identifies as a "Carlyle person."

EDGE: Mrs. Smith says that this show may kill her - is there a possibility that the show might become ’Mrs. Smith Dead?’

David Hanbury: No, but we’re developing a Halloween production called, "Mrs. Smith’s Murder Mystery Mansion," which will be an environmental happening that will take the interactive Murder Mystery theater event to a bizarro-level It’s starts out like the movie "Clue," with lots of wacky guests and people being stabbed in drawing rooms, and ends with the audience trapped in an alternate dimension, which turns out to be Mrs. Smith’s mind.

EDGE: How did you meet up with Andrew?

David Hanbury: He’s impossible to miss. He’s been doing these huge splashy musicals in the Twin Cities for years, and they’re terrific. He’s a genuine Broadway Baby.

EDGE: How did you pick the songs for the show?

David Hanbury: Some of them were songs that I just love singing and have tried out over the years. I’ve always loved singing ’Cabaret,’ and I started working with ’The Man That Got Away’ a while back and loved that, too. When I got around to ’The Ladies Who Lunch,’ I knew I needed to build a show around these songs, and that’s when I came up with the idea of a Broadway-style one woman spectacular.

EDGE: Who inspires you?

David Hanbury: I recently watched Bette Midler’s concert movie ’Divine Madness’ for the first time (I know, I’m late to the party), and all I can say is it made me feel like I could be working harder in life. I was blown away with the energy, the endless supply of energy, the tenacity and relentless attack of the performance and the singularity of her persona.

I’m captivated when a performer can bring together things that seem contrary. With Midler, for instance, she can be brassy and vulgar, but then switch gears and sing ’Do You Wanna Dance?’ and it’s tender and heartfelt and you just go along for the ride.

EDGE: Who inspires Mrs. Smith?

David Hanbury: Carlyle.

EDGE: Have you any other projects in the works?

David Hanbury: The children’s musical ’Mrs. Smith and Carlyle: To Mars and Back Again!’ is taking up all of our spare time. After the Boston show we head into the studio to record demos of the songs and I cannot wait because I believe in the show so much! To MARS!

EDGE: Is she a supporter of LGBT rights or a bible thumper?

David Hanbury: Mrs. Smith is one of the most ardent supporters of LGBT equality! Of course, gayness is not her "personal truth," but she has become something of an icon to her gay followers and she is so delighted to have these "interesting people" in her life! She lives and dies by her gay fans, especially the gay women (who of course, identify particularly with her plight over her cat!). She is hoping the gays come out in droves to her one-woman show, because nothing is any fun without them!!

You can catch Mrs. Smith Live! on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2013 and Friday, Oct. 25, 2013 at 7:30pm. Doors open at 7:00 pm. At Oberon, 2 Arrow Street, Cambridge, MA.

For more information, visit the Oberon website.

Watch a promo video for "Mrs. Smith Live" here:

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.


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