BWW Review: Still 'Chasing Dreams and Placing Bets,' Lynn Henderson Celebrates Life in T'AINT NOBODY'S BIZNESS IF I DO! at Don't Tell Mama
Lynn Henderson delighted a small but enthusiastic audience at Don't Tell Mama in the final performance of her new show, T'AIN'T NOBODY'S BIZNESS IF I DO! With musical director Douglas J. Cohen, a multi-award winning songwriter (including a Drama Desk Award nomination for CHILDREN'S LETTERS TO GOD and the Noel Coward Prize for THE GIG), and bass player Bob Sabin (who sits on the music faculty both of the prestigious Hunter College High School and NYU, and himself the winner of numerous jazz awards), the veteran big band, choral, and lounge singer combined material from her 2014 CD, If We Only Have Love, with classics from the Great American Songbook (George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kander and Ebb, among others). Ably directed by 10-time MAC Award winner Barry Kleinbort, the show also included more contemporary material by Billy Joel, Jerry Herman, and Randy Newman.
Marilyn Maye has praised Henderson's "great love for the art of singing" and the "honesty and caring" she brings to lyrics. Such descriptions, known in the business as "pull quotes," are hardly unique, but Henderson projects a rare and pure joy. From the moment the longtime Connecticut resident takes the stage in a bright red cape against and glistening silver hair, to her exit post-encore, there is a twinkle in her eyes. I've never seen anything like it. She's like the fairy godmother you always wanted.
So when Henderson misses a note, or her voice sounds thin, as it does in some songs, it doesn't matter. (Not even Frank sounded at 70 the way he did at 50.) What matters is Henderson's intelligence, musicality, phrasing, and heart, as she takes us on a musical journey that parallels her actual journeys. An avid traveler since the dissolution of her marriage of 36 years, Henderson truly is a citizen of the world. And without trying to, she makes us feel like close, personal friends; this is a gift.
Henderson began tentatively with "The Colors of My Life" (Cy Coleman/Michael Stewart), but sang a sweet "My Life" (Billy Joel), which she made her own. Even if you aren't a Joel fan, the song is on point in a show about living life on one's own terms. "T'Aint Nobody's Bizness If I Do" sounds smoother on the (excellent) CD, but those without a standard of comparison might not notice. One could not, however, fail to notice the oddly high placement of the mic, which obscured one-third of the performer's face. This is an easy fix but quite distracting.
In her initial remarks, Henderson said she was thrilled to be at Don't Tell Mama, though she wasn't sure her own mama would approve of the songs she intended to sing. Then, in a carefree rather than glib way, she noted that her mama was not around to object. Later in the show, Henderson claimed to be channeling Mae West but said she's probably closer to Doris Day. The comparison struck me from the start. Henderson's life philosophy, and a theme that runs through many of the songs, is one made famous by Day in "Que Sera, Sera." Life's thrown Henderson some curveballs, but she's determined to enjoy herself and avoid self-pity, which her mama called a "crime."
Vocally, Henderson begins to hit her stride with "I'm the Big Band Singer" (Merv Griffin) and "It's Showtime" (Cohen/Lawrence DuKore), the first track on her CD. The album version is stronger, but it's a sweet, old-fashioned song. A nice "That's All" (Alan Brandt/Bob Haymes) featured excellent piano and bass solos. Cohen, a technically solid pianist who plays beautifully on the CD, sounded a bit off in the first third of the show but played well thereafter.
Surprisingly, Cohen's voice sounded better live than in the studio. Many musical directors sing a song or two, but it's usually clear why they play piano, rather than sing, for a living. Not so with Cohen, whose elegant phrasing and vocal clarity made "Nice and Easy" (Lew Spence/Marilyn and Alan Bergman), "I'm in Love Again" (Cole Porter), and "Married" (Kander and Ebb) some of the show's strongest numbers. The Gershwin duet, an inventive medley (arranged when Cohen was just 16) of "They Can't Take That Away from Me," "S'Wonderful," and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" was pitch perfect.
Henderson prefaces "A Wonderful Guy" (Rodgers and Hammerstein) with talk of her divorce, about which she is predictably sunny. After crying "some salty tears," she picked herself up and set about the task of reinvention. This, she said with a smile, involved "a lot of singing." Things clearly went off the rails, but she isn't bitter. With class and grace, she can remember fondly a time she was very much in love with her "wonderful guy." A similarly upbeat, devil-may-care attitude makes "You've Let Yourself Go" (Charles Aznavour/Fred Ebb) a hit and nice lead-in to one of the evening's undeniable highlights: Randy Newman's "You've Got a Friend in Me."
Henderson's heart-melting story about her beloved Arabian mare, Erka Fadjura, lent deeper meaning to the poignant song. Never one to follow others' rules, the singer took up horseback riding at 46 and proceeded to ride from Maine to Florida. Her Juri, as she called her equine sidekick, took good care of her during the sometimes harrowing adventure. Juri's steadfastness proved that four-legged friends are often the most loyal and dependable. To judge by the nods in the audience, most agreed.
The Newman song also included a surprise: a mind-boggling tap routine by Aaron Tolson, who danced with the likes of Gregory Hines and Savion Glover. With intricate, highly syncopated choreography, Tolson nearly stole the show. One occasionally sees a simple tap dance in cabaret, but not on this scale. Henderson asked Tolson to dance because after seeing SHUFFLE ALONG, she and Cohen decided to take tap lessons, having never tapped in their youth. It's the same fearlessness that led Henderson to waterski and ride camels in China, bike ride in Vietnam, and roam Indian deserts (once on a humanitarian mission). Quoting Mark Twain dictum about travel, which he claimed was "fatal to bigotry and prejudice," Henderson launched into the most dramatic song of the evening, Ralph McTell's doleful "Streets of London."
As the show drew to a close, Henderson announced she was "throwing caution to the wind" and debuting a new song by Cohen and DuKore, "A Man's Gotta Make Me Shiver." Dramatically donning a large red boa, Henderson smiled mischievously and let loose with a raunchy tune about all the men she's dated. Both the verses and chorus are hilarious and well-written. And what woman can't relate to the following lyric: "some kind ones, some blind ones, some can't-make-up-their-mind ones."
Casting her glance to the distant past in the final stretch, Henderson paid tribute to classic movie stars she loved in her West Virginia childhood, when the family went to the movies every Friday night to see stars like Gregory Peck, Clark Gable, John Wayne, and Errol Flynn. The last is the subject of an oft-forgotten sketch by Gordon Hunt, "Errol Flynn," set to music by Amanda McBroom (who also wrote the lyrics) and imaginatively rendered.
T'AIN'T NOBODY'S BIZNESS IF I DO finishes on a high note with a terrific "I Got a Name" (Charles Fox/Norman Gimbel) and "Here's To Life" (Artie Butler/ Phyllis Molinary), a fitting encore for a show about a lady with "no regrets and no complaints." The song might well be the lovely Henderson's anthem.