Showing posts with label Great American Songbook. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Great American Songbook. Show all posts

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Hershey Felder BECOMES Irving Berlin in this One Man Tour de Force



The final performance at the Westport Country Playhouse of “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” was last night and we were lucky enough to be there.  It was a poignant and persuasive reminder that this nation is a nation of immigrants.   

It took a Jewish immigrant from Russia to write such classics as “God bless America “and “White Christmas” two of the top selling pieces of music of all time.

Felder traces Irving Berlin’s life having written not only the Book for this production, but he acts, sings, and as an accomplished concert pianist, accompanies himself.  It is a one man theatrical triumph with a beautiful set (a representation of Berlin's New York City Beekman Place apartment) and lighting by the Westport Country Playhouse where we’ve attended performances for more than 40 years during the summers..


In addition to those two classics previously mentioned, Felder’s bio-musical tells Berlin’s story in a score of songs, including “Alexander's Ragtime Band",” My Wife's Gone to the Country - Hooray! Hooray!” (Seriously, Berlin could make up a song just about anything and Felder engages the audience with this one, allowing us to sing the “Hooray! Horray! refrain), ”Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning”, “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody”, “What’ll I Do?”, “Blue Skies”, “Say It Isn’t So”,”Puttin’ On the Ritz”, “Supper Time” (a song about racial violence, sung by Ethel Waters) and “There’s No Business Like Show Business” from one of his most memorable and enduring Broadway hit musicals, Annie Get Your Gun (which he was enlisted to write at the last moment by the Gershwin Brothers as the intended composer, Jerome Kern, had died).  Incidentally, Felder does a great Ethel Merman imitation!

Felder traces Irving Berlin’s life in chronological order starting with his birth somewhere in the Russian empire, his family’s escape from the Russian pogroms and their arrival at Ellis Island when was only five years old, and his beginnings in music as a singing waiter.   

He had two marriages, his first wife dying soon after their marriage, and his second from one of the wealthiest families in America -- a marriage to which her family of course strongly objected.  He lost his only son in his infancy and had three daughters.  These facts are woven into the incredible musical accomplishments of his life.   

The evening is further enhanced thanks to the astute direction of Trevor Hay who cleverly embeds scenes from movies, still photographs and other emotionally relevant images and sounds on a large “mirror” and wall behind Felder.

But foremost is Felder’s spirited and talented portrayal of Berlin – in song, in piano performance, and acting, capturing the essence of the man and an era, underscoring the importance of Berlin to the Great American Songbook.  Indeed, as Jerome Kern said “he IS American music.”

Remarkably, his composition and performance abilities were all self-taught.  He wrote all his songs in F Sharp and they had to be transposed for most performances.  It is a most unlikely story, the immigrant songwriter who couldn’t read music and ultimately wrote some of the most iconic American songs.  Felder’s story emphasizes his contributions to both the WW I and WW II war efforts.  Simply put, he loved America!  

Berlin’s times, of course, had its own societal afflictions and horrors, and except for a few brief moments here and there, referring to the depression, and racial segregation and prejudice, and a little about anti-Semitism from his father in law, Felder mostly avoids those issues.  But this is meant to be more of a “feel good” bio-musical, and the author/performer sticks to his mission.

Felder’s ability to tell this story as an integrated musical performance has, I think, matured over the years.  About 15 years ago we saw him perform his first bio-musical Gershwin Alone at The Cuillo Centre for the Arts in West Palm Beach which ironically has now been transformed into the home that Dramaworks now occupies.  We loved that show as well, but I recall it was not so much a biographically integrated theatre piece as this one of Berlin as it was more reliant on Felder’s considerable talent as a concert pianist.  His Irving Berlin show tells the life story seamlessly through his acting, singing, and playing.  In other words, it meets the test of the modern Broadway musical although only one person, but, oh, what a remarkably talented person he is.

The thousands of songs Berlin wrote during his long career, which included more than a score of Broadway shows and Hollywood musicals tapped into feelings and tunes that appealed to his generation and succeeding ones, and Felder frequently engages the audience to sing along.  As he said after the show in a casual Q & A, there are basically three players in his piece, he, the piano and the audience.

After more than 1-1/2 hours without intermission and a standing ovation, he still had the enthusiasm and energy to spend another half hour with the audience amusingly fielding questions.  It was like talking to your best friend, but one with exceptional gifts.

We look forward to his future works, including a new play featuring the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff.  Sign us up!

And so after such a satisfying evening we followed the winding roads of Westport back to our boat as a thunderstorm was gathering in the west.  Luckily, we beat it “home.”


Saturday, July 20, 2019

Getting Tall


My rendition of “Getting Tall” was recorded more than five years ago, but at the time, as its digital size was within the parameters of BlogSpot’s own video capabilities, I embedded it in the blog entry with their software.  This rendered it unplayable on mobile devices which are now the primary way my blog and therefore posted videos are accessed.  Thus, I’ve put it on YouTube and this can now be seen and heard in this entry.

Originally I posted it at the same time as “One Song Glory” from the musical Rent and both videos were a departure for me for reasons I explained in the former entry:

“Unlike the other videos I’ve done its close up.  This is not because I’m wild about my hands.  After all, they are, together, 142 years old! : - ).  But the sound was better with my little digital camera nearer to the piano. ‘One Song Glory’ is a genre outside my traditional classic Broadway comfort zone.  In other words, it doesn’t come naturally to me, but sometimes we have to forge into new territory.”

I continued with “the musical structure of ‘Getting Tall,’ from the musical Nine, on the other hand (no pun intended), is closer to the traditional Broadway musical, so I’m more relaxed playing this piece….’Getting Tall” is a very evocative conceit, the younger self counseling the mature version of the same person.”
Learning more, knowing less,
Simple words, tenderness part of getting tall.

Hopefully, that tenderness comes across….”


On a related matter, I received a comment on my recording of “This Funny World” which I’ll share here. I don’t get many comments as my videos are not heavily trafficked as are so many of the professional ones, but it’s always pleasing to learn that the tree is not falling in a silent forest and there are some people who come forth to express their feelings.  This one is particularly appreciated for the reasons I expressed in my reply:

From “Tom”
I was looking around for the song “This Funny World” by Rodgers and Hart; I had remembered the song from the past and thought how poignant and in many ways also how true the words seem to be.  These words as well as the music begins a chain of events causing a sharp sense of sadness, pity, and regret, and still a realization that life’s journey for everyone,-- to one degree or the other,--  have to say that this funny world has been making fun of them. But I wanted to learn the song and of course put into you-to-bee “How to play (This funny World) and this wonderful looking keyboard came up with a pair of hands on it, I thought to myself --  ok let’s see how bad this guy messes up the song, but to my surprise and delight I could sit through the entire song and drink in every beautiful note and expression, nothing added nothing subtracted it actually was what I was looking for, you have an extraordinary ear and the ability to present the song just as the writers intended.   Thank you.


My Reply:
Thank you, Tom, for your kind comments.  You touched upon both my strength and weakness as a pianist.  I do try to focus on a literal interpretation and play the song as I feel it.  I lack the musical education to render these songs with the kind of voicing and interpretation of some of my favorite pianists such as Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson.  But over the years I tried to commit some of my favorites to YouTube.  I laughed when you said that you found a pair of hands and a keyboard in your search for the song.  My recording device is a digital camera which I’ve learned that when I record a distance from the piano to get my body and all into the video, my living room becomes an echo chamber.  Better be close, very close to the piano for the best sound and, even then, it has noticeable limitations. I’ve recorded 4 CDs in a studio and these sound better, but they are not available commercially.  Also, when I do a YouTube recording, I usually write it up in my blog, and my entry on “This Funny World” is at this link: https://lacunaemusing.blogspot.com/2015/12/this-funny-world.html

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair?


Billy Barnes is not exactly a household name in the annals of the Great American songbook but he had a successful career as a composer and lyricist.  Maybe his relative anonymity is because so much of his work was for TV rather than the stage, but one recognizable hit alone catapulted him into the company of some of the greats, "(Have I Stayed) Too Long at the Fair."  My attraction to the song is similar to the one I have for Jerry Herman’s romantic ballad, “I Won’t Send Roses,” both bittersweet, haunting, regretful.

It takes an exceptional lyricist to make a great song so memorable.  Barnes’ song crafting created a certain kind of poignancy in this one, rendering it a classic.  One can listen to two completely different  versions on YouTube, Barbra Streisand’s highly stylized rendition recorded early in her career and Rosemary Clooney’s recorded late in hers.  Clooney has the perspective of an older woman with life’s experience to “sell” the song.  After all, it is more about a mature, “successful” woman, now alone “in a carnival city.”

My own piano recording can’t do the song justice without the words and you’ll note the ambiguity of my timing.  The song is written in 4/4 time, but the lyrics cry out for it to be played in a waltz tempo so frequently associated with the merry-go-round of the lyrics and I’m constantly drawn in and then  out of that tempo so my version is simply the way I feel it, wrong timing and all.  But I would like to add this to my YouTube library of some of my favorites.


For a full appreciation, the lyrics are necessary:

I wanted the music to play on forever
Have I stayed too long at the fair?
I wanted the clown to be constantly clever
Have I stayed too long at the fair?
I bought my blue ribbons to tie up my hair
But couldn't find anybody to care
The merry-go-round is beginning to taunt now
Have I stayed too long at the fair?
Oh mother dear, I know you're very proud
Your little girl in gingham is so far from the crowd
No daddy dear, you never could have known
That I would be successful, yet so very alone
I wanted to live in a carnival city
With laughter everywhere
I wanted my friends to be thrilling and witty
I wanted somebody to care
I found my blue ribbons all shiny and new
But now I discover them no longer blue
The merry-go-round is beginning to taunt me
Have I stayed too long at the fair?
There's nothing to win
And there's no one to want me
Have I stayed too long at the fair?

Monday, May 13, 2019

There Will Never Be Anyone Like Her


Doris Day is dead.  Ann and I have been dreading this moment and no sense repeating all the accolades that will be posted and written, all deserved.

But to me, a piece of me has died. The only way I can put it is I loved her public persona.  I felt the same way when John Updike passed away, one who occupied my reading life and made sense of the changes in America, decade by decade. Can it be he has been gone ten years now? 

Doris Day occupied my idealized fantasies of the girl next door during the same period, fresh, wholesome, shorn of pretense.  This is something that cannot be faked.  She was radiant, buoyant, and whenever I needed a pick me up, all I needed was to watch, yet again, one of her films as her inherent goodness was infectious. 

Her talent was peerless.  I don’t think anyone in film could match her for her ability to act, sing, and dance, especially in the comic realm.  She was the whole package, and projected a special kind of lovable personality.

One theatre/film critic, who will remain nameless, has criticized her as being merely an average singer.  Perhaps her voice was not exceptional.  Nor was Sinatra’s.  But there was that something else that made their singing extraordinary.  Sinatra’s phrasing and ability to capture his audience as if he was singing to you might be the best way to describe his gift.  Doris’ was to project her golden personality in song.  Just listening to one of her recordings, I see her radiant smile in my mind.

We’ve usually heard her with big bands but she would have made it as a cabaret singer if movie land did not appropriate her for their own in some 40 films.  One of those was a biopic where she played cabaret singer, Ruth Etting, with Jimmy Cagney, demonstrating both her acting ability and cabaret style in “Love Me or Leave Me” (1955).  Or one can hear her with pianist AndrĂ© Previn on the 1962 album “Duet” and appreciate her gift for singing without the silver screen prop, that sparkling personality still shining through.

In a world sorely in need of rectitude and hope another “companion” of ours has passed, but at least we have her films and recordings to remind us of what can be.  RIP Doris Day.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

A Musical Week


It’s our universal language and while the political discourse is discordant, music seems to bring out our commonalities.  Our favorite musical genres are songs from Broadway, the Great American Songbook, and Jazz and so it was with much anticipation that we looked forward to last week which began with a show at the Delray Beach Playhouse, I Believe in You! – The Songs of Frank Loesser.

Ann arranged a preshow dinner at Racks Fish House off Delray’s famous (and congested) Atlantic Avenue, a happening place.  It was a balmy early April evening, with a nice breeze so we dined al fresco.  Imagine our surprise reading the appetizer menu which included Copps Island, CT oysters!  Copps Island which is connected at low tide to Crow Island is where we have taken our boat for the last 35 years during the summers, anchoring there on weekends.  So here we were, some 1,250 miles away dining on wild oysters from those very waters.  These are bottom planted as opposed to cage or floating trays and the oysters are known for “sweet briny flavor and plump meats. “  It was a nice and nostalgic start to the evening.

Delray Beach Playhouse which opened in 1947 is a community theatre featuring everything from one person acts to full scale plays.  They have a dedicated audience, we now among them.  But who knew, the playhouse is on Lake Ida, a fresh water lake right off of I95, comprising 121 acres, but seeming much larger than that as it is long and narrow.  Looking at it is reminiscent of our days on Lake George in NY and Candlewood Lake in CT as one can see similar boat houses and lake front homes.

I Believe in You! – The Songs of Frank Loesser was narrated by Randolph DelLago who has been the Resident Artistic Director of the Playhouse since 1982.  He also sings in this production.  When one thinks of Frank Loesser, one recalls the iconic Guys and Dolls, one of the great classic musicals of Broadway’s Golden Era.  It perhaps has more recognizable songs than any other musical, including those of Rogers and Hammerstein.  He only wrote four other musicals, The Most Happy Fella and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, being the most notable.  Songs were performed from all of these with original still scenes projected on a backdrop.  The Most Happy Fella has one of the most moving rhapsodic opera style songs ever written for the Great White Way, “My Heart is So Full of You,” one of my favorites for the piano, with an exotic bridge section of eight bars.

But Loesser, who was cast out by his family as they thought “songwriting” was beneath their dignity (his father was a piano teacher and his brother was a classical piano prodigy), found his roots in popular song in Hollywood before migrating to Broadway.  There are many memorable songs he wrote for The Great American Songbook and this show had many, such as “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You,” “Heart and Soul,” “On a Slow Boat to China,” “Two Sleepy People,”“Baby, It’s Cold Outside,”“No Two People,” and “Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year” (the latter being another personal piano favorite of mine).  Along with DelLago, performances were given by Alicia Branch-Stafford, a soprano, baritone William Stafford, and Hanz Eneart who added a little cabaret dancing to the show as well as joining the ensemble in song with a comedic rendition of” Once in Love with Amy.”

Breaking up the week was a trip to Peanut Island with my friend John, a destination on the boat which will become more frequent as the water warms to bathtub temperatures.  Amazing that at one time in my life, jumping into the waters off of Copps Island into 70 degree water was refreshing but now wadding into Peanut’s current 79 degree water seems difficult!  Maybe that’s because the air temperature on Thursday was in the high 80s.  Got home late in the afternoon, just in time to clean the boat with John, shower, and get ready to go to the Maltz Jupiter Theatre.

There we saw West Side Story towards the end of its run, so I am not publishing a full review.  This is what the Maltz Theatre does best but, still, we were a little concerned about seeing this yet again.  Could it still possibly be fresh (although the music by Bernstein and lyrics by Sondheim are immortal)?

The short answer is a resounding yes!  I think some of the classic musicals are being looked at in a new light, due to the times and the influence of Hamilton.  Most recently this is apparent with the Circle in the Square’s current production of Oklahoma which some have criticized as a travesty, irreverent to Rogers and Hammerstein’s intent.  I’m not too sure, although that was my knee jerk reaction.  Now, thinking about it, and reading more about it, I’m willing to be persuaded and therefore we’re going to see it sometime in August.  I’ll be lining up for the chili and corn bread!

There is a dark side to Oklahoma, as in all of the R&H plays.  Just think of Billy Bigalow’s corruptibility in Carousel, or the racial tensions of South Pacific and The King and I, the lurking Nazi shadows in The Sound of Music.  These musicals were played out for the audiences of their times with relatively happy resolutions (just what was expected then).  One could cast them now in an entirely different light and why not?

In a sense, the Maltz’s interpretation of West Side Story has been so influenced.  A framing device of Hurricane Maria has been introduced.  How ironic is that, the Maria of the story picking up after Hurricane Maria, alone with her memories of Tony?  This scene reprises at the end of the show.  It was a lovely, moving touch, particularly in the light of how this terrible storm has been politicized.

And with Puerto Rican born Marcos Santana’s direction and musical staging, we have more of a take on the Sharks rather than the Jets.  The hell-bent fury of xenophobic victimization is explosively probed by Angel Lozada who plays Bernardo.  Michelle Alves performance as Anita is more than up to the easily remembered performance of Chita Rivera in that part.  Alves is every bit as dynamic as a dancer and is a very talented vocalist as well.

Not enough praise can be directed toward Jim Schubin who plays Tony and Evy Ortiz as Maria.  Schubin brings a strong sense of constant optimism and wonder to the role as well as a clear tenor voice.  Ortiz is the ideal Maria, a soprano and coloratura who is radiant in the role of Maria (she was recently on the West Side Story national tour).  They had the perfect chemistry as Tony and Maria and their duets soared.

The choreography by Al Blackstone (with additional choreography by the director), gives a hat tip to Jerome Robbins’ choreography but is original and pulsating on the Maltz stage.  It’s a smaller cast than the original musical, but one would not know it.

With the refugee crisis of our times, it was time to look at West Side Story through a different lens, and the Maltz comes through. 

And last night we attended the 1st Palm Beach International Jazz Festival, the first, we hope, of many in the future.  It is the idea of one of South Florida’s premier jazz singers, Yvette Norwood-Tiger, who has traveled the world with her interpretations of jazz classics, particularly songs sung by Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.  She performs in six languages including English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Xhosa.

She created an afternoon and evening performance with different groups and singers.  We attended the evening performance and thus my comments are confined to that.

First up was Marlow Rosado, a Latin Jazz pianist from Puerto Rico, and his group.  Rasado is a salsero, and is imposing at the piano with his driving salsa rhythms, somewhat reminiscent of Monte Alexander.  I said to Ann that I’ve never seen a pianist who could pass as a football tight end and the physicality of his performance spoke wonders.  He posted last night’s performance on Facebook, so you can catch him there.
 
Next up was Eric & The Jazzers, a South Florida group of professional musicians that play swing/bebop from the great era of Duke Ellington.  Eric Trouillot also served as MC for the night’s performances, a guy from the Bronx who brought out the best of the very well represented NYC crowd (including us).

His group’s trumpet player, Yamin Mustafa, is one of the best we’ve heard and pianist, Chad Michaels, obviously has studied Oscar Peterson’s technique closely. As Mustafa said, the group’s musical selections are eclectic.

But the star of the night was clearly the evening’s organizer, Yvette Norwood-Tiger.  Yvette is a survivor of a benign yet life-threatening brain tumor because of its size and position, but had a successful operation some seven years ago.  Every time we’ve seen her she encourages the audience to “find that door opening” and for her it is singing Horace Silver’s jazz classic "Song for My Father."  Naturally, Yvette means it quite literally, thanking God for the opportunity to continue on with her unique gifts, a powerful yet sometimes subtle interpreter of the Great American Songbook. 

Backing her up musically were all the “old gang” we see almost every Sunday night at Double Roads in Jupiter, her musical director for the evening and oh-so talented pianist, also the co founder of the Jupiter Jazz Society, Rick Moore.  Along with Rick were Marty Gilman, on sax and flute, Joshua Ewers on bass and Michael Mackey on trumpet.  Marty is a multitalented musician who can play a large number of instruments at the professional level and we watched Joshua and Michael while they were still in high school, and have now grown into professional musicians in their own right.

And to bring this entry back to where it began (remember, Copps Island, in the Norwalk CT chain of islands), I learned that Horace Silver (Yvette’s tribute composer), was born in Norwalk, CT so it seems that all roads lead back to our years there.