Tonya Celebrates Ethel

Tonya Pinkins presents a tribute to Ethel Waters on August 27 at 54 Below.

The imperishable, triple threat genius of Judy Garland is always being celebrated, but there was a much lesser-sung woman, at least equally as talented, who came before her –– Ethel Waters, who also broke down major barriers of race and culture. Happily, she has a lifelong fan in Tonya Pinkins –– like Waters herself, a wondrously gifted singing actor –– who will pay serious tribute to her in her 54 Below gig on August 27 (254 W. 54th St., 9:30 p.m.;

Pinkins was supposed to do a full one-woman show about Waters, but, the day of our interview, she told me that was off, which she said made my gift of a photo of Waters in “Cabin in the Sky” all the more meaningful to her. Looking like a million bucks, Pinkins, dressed up for the opening night of “Into the Woods” and toting a present for Donny Murphy, told me, “I’ve been obsessed with Ethel ever since I was 15 and read her two autobiographies. Most people just know her from ‘Member of the Wedding.’ So for me, it’s exciting. I get to vocally do things that people aren’t accustomed to me doing. She had a beautiful voice. People don’t know that she was the first woman ever to record scat before it was even called scat. We’re doing a version of ‘I Got Rhythm’ in her style, which she did 20 years before Ella was even around.

“She was the first black woman to have her own radio and television shows, win an Emmy, the second black woman to be nominated for an Oscar. She did it all, movies and hundreds of recordings, was bigger than Bessie Smith. She was the first international black superstar who crossed over. They voted to give her a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and it has never been funded. So I hope we get the show going and raise the money for that.

“I think that her 20 years in Billy Graham’s ministry, the largest in the history of the world, was a very different audience. This writer [of the one-woman piece now abandoned] came out of that world and so he wrote a show that really catered to that, her religious aspects, and didn’t want to address all these other, younger aspects of her life. That’s why I decided that I couldn’t do this show, which left out so much of this woman’s life, and she deserves her due. My manager said, ‘Wow, it’s amazing how your lives parallel,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, but I was interested in her when my life hadn’t even begun yet. So what does that say about the world that our lives paralleled? It hasn’t changed too much.”

Waters’ life was incredibly complex, with a horrendous childhood, and there was a dichotomy between her religiousness and how downright evil she could be in real life: “She gave Lena Horne a bad time! She was a character, feisty, a tough lady who had a career and survived in a way that more sensitive artists, like Billie Holiday, didn’t. You had to be tough.

“While researching her, I was told of the time she was in Berlin at a big international collective, watching the Martha Graham Dance Company. Everyone was impressed, but someone asked Ethel what she thought and she sniffed, ‘Negroes have been doing pratfalls for decades!’”

Pinkins has had her own share of hard times, including custody battles, and she admitted to being near homeless “many times”: “My mother used to complain, ‘You’re always daydreaming!’ But I couldn’t have survived my childhood if I hadn’t dreamed that I could be somewhere else. There are times when it gets me in trouble because I can be in the midst of some awfulness and I can be imagining something else. I tell my four children, ‘Don’t worry about how it’s gonna happen. Just be sure it’s gonna happen, and the how will come.”

Pinkins really stretched her acting range this year, playing an utterly convincing hard-bitten urban single mom in “Milk Like Sugar”: “That was fun to get to play that woman, who is someone people wouldn’t think of me as. I know that chain-smoking woman, I know her. For a black woman, I’ve gotten some really good roles this season –– two Shakespeares, ‘Milk Like Sugar,’ the great-grandmother in ‘Hurt Village,’ and then a Latina from the Bronx in ‘Storefront Church.’ But now it’s time for me to do a musical. People forget you sing if you don’t do it.”

The last time Pinkins sang was in her Tony-nominated “Caroline, or Change”:

“Jeanine Tesori wrote music for us that fit like a suit of clothes and Tony [Kushner] is just too brilliant for his own good,” she said of that experience, before venting about playwrights who are harder to work with. “It’s really about all these scripts he writes, but now we gotta have just one evening [laughs]. He was completely open about us actors contributing to the script, so I get a little snobby when young playwrights don’t want to talk to us: ‘If Pulitzer-winning Tony Kushner can listen to actors, then so can you, just starting out.’”

“People still think I won the Tony for that, but the Green Girl [Idina Menzel in “Wicked”] won that year [laughs]. There was an incredible amount of energy around me that year, and it was all about all these people who wanted something from me that I didn’t feel was mine at the time. Now, the year of ‘Jelly’s Last Jam,’ I was like, ‘I want this Tony, although everybody, the Times, the Post, said ‘Forget it.’ But me and my publicist worked and campaigned hard when no one believed in us, so it was fun to win in an old studio glamour gown I got from Gene London. It’s something when you’ve been dreaming about it all your life, like when I got on ‘All My Children,’ which I watched when I was seven. I tell my children imagination is more important than any fact or reality in your life. You can imagine it, do it and be it.”

Early on, when she was still attending Carnegie Mellon, Pinkins was in “Merrily We Roll Along,” which, like “Caroline,” had a less than ecstatic overall reception. “Gosh, I’m saying this on the record, but I have these premonitions,” Pinkins recalled. “I just never felt good about that show. Everyone was saying, ‘Oh, you’re gonna be a star,’ and I was like, ‘We’ll see.’ I was excited for the opportunity and thought people need to see it, but I knew it wasn’t going to be my moment.

“About ‘Caroline,’ [director] George [C. Wolfe] and I were talking about it recently. He said, ‘That really should have been your moment.’ But Ben Brantley didn’t like it, and there was always this aspect of how do you celebrate someone who’s a maid, not glamorous or fantastical?”

I told Pinkins that, at the press preview, when the curtain rose on that basement set with the washing machine, writer Harry Haun whispered to me, “Draws you right in, doesn’t it?” She shrieked with laughter: “Exactly! I don’t want to spend my evening in the basement with the appliances! Whoo! I’m not havin’ it!”

I thoroughly enjoyed being a guest judge again for the MetroStar Talent Challenge at the Metropolitan Room on July 30. There were some real voices among the 18 contestants, but I was most taken with young Lianne Marie Dobbs –– still in the running at press time –– who closed out the night with “(Have I Stayed) Too Long at the Fair.” I initially groaned at the song choice, but sat bolt upright when she proceeded to work it six ways from Sunday, delivering serious melody and drama. I told her she should go far because, along with everything else, she possesses that rare quality all true stars have –– a riveting kind of dementia.

Lianne Marie Dobbs in the 2011 Westchester Broadway Theatre production of “Jekyll and Hyde.” | LIANNEMARIEDOBBS.COM

Although technically a car chase movie, “Hit and Run” (in wide release) is the perfect late summer fare, being a quirkily well-observed comedy with a manic Preston Sturges quality to it, as well as a fine cast of comedians –– Kristen Bell, Beau Bridges, Tom Arnold, Bradley Cooper, Sean Hayes, and, in her strongest screen outing yet, Kristen Chenoweth as a randy school administrator. When Bell expresses worry about being fired from her teaching job, Chenoweth says, “That’s like being the guy who cleans up the jack-off booths on Highway One –– all the dried semen and crumpled Kleenex –– worrying about losing his job. This is the jack-off booth of schools!”

Director, writer, and star Dax Shepard has also put that notorious app, Grindr, on the screen for the first time, and he told me, “Jess Rowland, the guy who plays the gay sheriff who uses it, is one of my best friends. He was the one who introduced me to Grindr. We’d be in a restaurant and he’d be telling me who there was down to party with someone, and I thought that was amazing.

“We were going to use the name Grindr, which was in the script, and we asked permission to use their name. They opted not to, so we came up with ‘Pouncer,’ which I ended up liking a lot better than Grindr, anyway. I pounce! Do You? [Laughs.] Like a great big puma!”

Shepard worried his film wouldn’t be first with Grindr by the time it hit the screen: “I started getting nervous because we shot this 16 months ago, and during the whole last 15 months I thought there was no way that someone was not going to beat us to it. Well, so far the movie comes out in two weeks and I haven’t seen anything so far.

“I definitely wanted everyone to see that Jess being gay is not the joke. The fact that there’s a technology that allows you to fuck strangers is the joke. That is amazing, not the fact that he’s gay or not gay.”

Mireille Balin and Jean Gabin in “Gueule d’Amour,” which screens at the Film Forum on August 28. | FILM FORUM

Film Forum’s “The French Old Wave” celebrates the glories of Gallic cinema from the 1930s to 1950s, with seminal work by the likes of Renoir, Cocteau, Ophüls, Clair, Duvivier, and Carne (209 W. Houston St., Aug. 17-Sep. 13, It’s a perfect way to escape the summer chaleur, and two rarities are of especial interest: “Hotel du Nord,” with its supremely entertaining raffish assortment of tenants, including the sublime Arletty as maybe the best screen hooker of them all, with her unforgettable rant about “Atmosphere!”; and “Gueule d’Amour” (Aug. 28) everything you could want from a cynical love story, featuring the great Jean Gabin as an irresistible ladies’ man of a soldier reteamed with his “Pepe le Moko” love, the iridescent Mireille Balin.

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