This evening of Johnny Mercer songs (selected from some 1500 he wrote) showed what could be done with minimal resources in the theatre (in this case, the barnlike Cafe Chashama, if a barn could have comfortable seats). Eight performers rendered the songs and minimal (a good choice) patter with a smoothness of timing, a naturalness of delivery, and a sense of the lyrics that made the venue a background concern.
Mercer wrote songs that have a beginning, middle, and end. He was lucky in his composers (in the majority of songs for which he didn't write the music himself), in that they served his lyrics with catchy tunes. Highlights of the evening were "I'm Old-Fashioned" (performed by Bobby Belfry), "Drinking Again" (performed by Paul Bernhardt, who brought a character rich in world-weariness to all his numbers), "One for My Baby" (performed by Carolyn Montgomery), and "Accentuate the Positive" (performed by the ensemble). That three of these were the last three songs of the evening speaks well for the staying power of the ensemble: it's not easy to keep an audience's attention through 15 songs by the same artist (admittedly with different composers) if the effort is mediocre.
To single out individuals of that ensemble any further would be to suggest that their colleagues didn't measure up, and that wouldn't be true. In particular, all the performers were careful to react to others who were singing when they were both on stage. And all the performers matched gesture to word and note so carefully as to look spontaneous. (Ah! The art that conceals Art!)
In addition to studious accompaniment (in the last number with a rollicking left hand) and deft preparation of his singers, musical director Hubert "Tex" Arnold obviously enjoyed himself, and it was obvious that his ensemble got into the mood. This is what world-famed conductor Ben Zander calls "one-buttock performing." It's not enough to cover the material correctly; the performer should let loose, as though rising up off his posterior to do so.
And in addition to matching gesture to note and word, writer/director/choreographer Ryan Blanchard selected the material so that the overall the evening -- from fun to a touch of alienation to reconciliation -- had a dramatic shape, as surely as if it had been a play. It's what keeps audiences comfortably on their posteriors throughout a performance.
Even given the extremely limited lighting complement of the space, Tom Orr's efforts in that direction served to provide focus and mood where needed.
(Also featuring Keith Anderson, Joyce Breach, Matthew Helton, Wendy Porter, Christine Zino. See also Jonathan Larson's Musical Heirs: The Next Generation of Musical Theater Songwriters.)
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Copyright 2002 John Chatterton