Alan Cumming honors America's immigrant heritage in word and song

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Immigration may be a hot topic for discussion, but history shouldn't be torched amidst all that conversation, according to Alan Cumming.

The Tony Award-winning actor's new cabaret show, "Legal Immigrant," comes 10 years after the Scotland native became a U.S. citizen. The performance arriving at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Sunday, however, was inspired by a more recent event.

"The thing that really prompted me to do this show is that the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services website basically removed the phrase 'nation of immigrants' on their statement," Cumming told The Eagle during a mid-June telephone interview, referring to news announced in February. "So, I just felt like there was this rewriting of history happening. I wanted to do a show that would talk about my experiences of being an immigrant in this country but also celebrate immigration and remind people that America is great because of all the people who have come here to settle here and make it."

The show documents some of Cumming's experiences as an American citizen over the past 10 years, pairing his anecdotes with tunes that draw from all over the map.

"I talk about the provenance of all the different composers of the songs I sing and the people who made the songs famous," he said.

Cumming enjoys mash-ups; for example, he'll blend a Pink song with a number by Marlene Dietrich, the German native who became a U.S. citizen, as well as a mix of tunes by The Proclaimers and Bronis au Kaper, the Polish-American composer.

The show won't exclusively be about immigration — expect some humor from the 53-year-old related to aging and, perhaps, a Disney-fueled medley — but it is the focus.

"In the last 10 years, the whole rhetoric around immigration has changed drastically, and I am very alarmed by that," Cumming said.

Born in Aberfeldy, Scotland, Cumming first ventured to Hollywood to work on "Romy and Michele's High School Reunion." The 1997 high school reunion comedy starring Mira Sorvino and Lisa Kudrow landed the actresses and Cumming an MTV Movie Award for best dance sequence.

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"I can't tell you how naive I was," Cumming recalls of his first Hollywood experience on his website. "At the read-through an actor pronouced 'Tucson' (where the film is set) correctly and I snorted, thinking that they had made a sort of joke because I really thought it was pronounced 'Tuck-son'. Then the next person said it and I realised[cq] I was the one who had it wrong!"

In addition to appearing in "GoldenEye," Cumming had been a celebrated performer onstage in the United Kingdom before traveling to the U.S. In 1988, he had his first big theater break, playing Slupianek in Manfred Karge's "The Conquest of the South Pole" at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre and, eventually, London's Royal Court Theatre in the West End. His performance received an Olivier Award nomination for best newcomer. Three years later, he won a best comedy performance Olivier for Dario Fo's "Accidental Death of an Anarchist," and seven years after that, he won the best actor in a musical Tony for his Emcee performance in "Cabaret."

Cumming began his feature film career in 1992 with "Prague." Though he has appeared in blockbusters ("X2: X-Men United") and acclaimed films with lesser budgets ("Any Day Now"), Cumming's TV work had gotten him the most attention recently. Following a seven-season, Emmy-nominated run as political consultant Eli Gold on "The Good Wife," Cumming is currently playing Dr. Dylan Reinhart on the CBS drama, "Instinct." Reinhart, a professor and former CIA operative who is drawn back into his old profession, is married to a man on the show that is inspired by James Patterson's novel of the same title. Debuting this past March, "Instinct" is the "first broadcast hourlong series with a gay leading character," according to The Hollywood Reporter and multiple reports. Cumming said that distinction was a "huge reason" he wanted to do the series. Reinhart feels like an atypical character to him.

"I'm drawn to this because he's different, because he's a little of an outsider," said Cumming, who is married to illustrator Grant Shaffer.

The drama doesn't fixate on the character's sexual orientation, which was vital for Cumming.

"On television, especially, when there's a gay character, usually, their sexuality is the focus of their narrative. And I think that's just something [we've] got to get beyond as a culture. If we stop making it a big deal, it won't be a big deal," he said.

Cumming is enjoying the show's "snappy dialogue" and "slightly campy quality." Others are, too; "Instinct" was just renewed for a second season, exposing more viewers to gay marriage and, potentially, changing some opinions on the matter. Cumming's cabaret show may also alter some views. He has a Nelson Mandela-like take on discrimination.

"Bigotry is not something you're born with," he said. "You learn it."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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