DEBRA DIGIOVANNI: THE LATE BLOOMER TOUR presented by Just For Laughs at the Winter Garden (189 Yonge). January 24. Continues to February 9. hahaha.com/debradigiovanni Rating: NNN
I love watching stand-ups I've seen in small and medium comedy clubs graduate to playing big houses. It doesn't always happen, of course, but when it does, it's fascinating to see how they perform. Do they have the presence and energy to fill up the hall? Do they still connect with the crowd?
In the case of Debra DiGiovanni, who's in the midst of a cross-country tour produced by Just For Laughs - the first ever by a solo woman - I'd have to say no, or at least not yet.
Lord knows she's deserving of the honour. Over nearly 15 years, she's honed and tightened her act, polished her persona so we absolutely get her. She's the woman who spends a little too much time at home, has a cat or two, some food and body image issues.
I'm not saying that's her, of course, just the persona she adopts onstage. And it's a winning strategy. We're instantly on her side and get the fact that, ultimately, she's having the last laugh, using her pain - and there's pain at the heart of this material - to get laughs and triumph. It's comedy as catharsis, success as the best revenge.
Which makes her stiff appearance at the Winter Garden so disappointing.
Through her stand-up, appearances on Much Music's Video On Trial and the Comedy Network's Match Game, and bold presence on social media, she's built up a loyal fan base of people who now happily pay to see her headline a show.
She's earned this crowd - her hometown peeps, eager to see her after she moved to L.A. last year. She's earned this venue, along with the other beautiful theatres she's gracing throughout the country. She can do anything, bask momentarily in the glory of her achievement.
But her appearance at the Winter Garden made her seem small, nervous, tentative, none of which I'd ever associate with her act before.
She began with a classic, about having plans on a Friday night, which she jokes is why she got into comedy in the first place. Her bit about the freezing wind - "it makes you feel like you're being chased!" - was followed by one of her best-received jokes, delivered in mock-earnest PSA style: "We lost a lot of thin girls today."
Living in L.A. has given her some fresh new material. She says female comedians "look like Jennifer Aniston ... with better bodies." And trying to navigate the city of angels has made her take driving lessons to get her license. The image of her with her small, Mexican-American driving instructor, Gustavo, is terrific. I would pay to see those lessons.
What becomes clear after about 15 minutes, however, is that her act is simply going to be more of the same. Individually, her jokes - most having to do with food, lack of exercise (her quip "It's cardio!" becomes a rather monotonous refrain) and letting loose about social niceties - are solid.
Her famous cat joke - about her relationship with her cat (who's since died) - has been polished to near perfection. Her sequence about the paltry selection of clothes available for larger women - nothing but sequins and "bras like vests of beige metal" - is dead on.
But without an arc, or at least some extended stories, the show is exhausting to watch. There's no momentum. It doesn't help that DiGiovanni says her jokes rapidly, her sassy asides often getting lost. And she has a strange way of using the word "Anyway" before a bit, making us think she's about to wrap up her set.
Is this nerves? A way to maintain her underdog persona? Not wanting to seem overly confident? The result, ironically, is to make her seem not confident enough.
DiGiovanni also doesn't seem fully present. It takes time to grow into success, to seem like you deserve it (even if, for some reason, you don't believe it), and at her Winter Garden show, she just never seemed comfortable. How I longed to see her take a second or two, look up at the audience, smile and - as they say in L.A. and elsewhere - simply be in the moment.
She and her huge talent deserve that. And a lot more.