T. Oliver Reid Visits Vintage Harlem and Eric Michael Gillett Explores the Lyrics of Lorenz Hart at 54 Below Shows
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
At last year's Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MAC) Awards, two of the big winners were T. Oliver Reid (right) for Male Debut and Eric Michael Gillett for Major Artist, Male (and both could very likely be MAC nominees again this year). Almost a year later, two of New York cabaret's leading men performed new shows one night apart at 54 Below; Reid on February 6 with Drop Me Off in Harlem, and Gillett the next night with Careless Rhapsody: An Evening Dedicated to the Lyrics of Lorenz Hart. Ironically, what the shows had in common--besides being a fairly good fit of material to singer--was that the majority of their sets featured songs written in the 1930s but in very different styles. With Reid it was the jazz, swing and blues of Harlem; with Gillette it was the romantic Broadway musical sensibility of Hart's lyrics (paired with the timeless melodies of Richard Rodgers). While neither Reid's "Harlem," nor Gillett's "Hart" were stirring or spectacular shows, they were both solid and entertaining enough that both could be nominated for BroadwayWorld.com Awards in 2013.
T. Oliver Reid is already being honored for "Harlem," earning a Bistro Award (presented on March 4) for "Tribute Show," on the strength of his run at Feinstein's in November and December. For his one-shot deal at 54 Below, Reid reunited with his stellar band, featuring Musical Director/Pianist Lawrence Yurman, Ray Kilday on bass, Trevor Newman on trumpet, and Damien Bassman on drums and percussion. It isn't enough for just the singer to capture the sounds and soul of the Cotton Club and the other infamous Harlem nightlight venues of the depression era, you must have a swinging band to help pull it off and on that front, Reid's group rocked.
The cover boy of the January/February issue of Cabaret Scenes Magazine entered elegantly in a tuxedo and top hat and launched into the story of the heyday of Upper Manhattan's African-American neighborhood with "What Harlem Is To Me" (Andy Razaf/Russell Wooding/Paul Denniker). How did one from outside the nabe get to Harlem (especially the upper middle class whites who frequented the more popular nightclubs)? Of course, you would "Take The 'A' Train" (here Reid's band produced a swinging arrangement of the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn classic) that would "Drop Me Off in Harlem." From there Reid took the audience on a journey to the areas hottest spots, like the Savoy Ballroom, Small's Paradise, the Radium Club, and the homosexual hangouts Gladys' Clam House and the Sugar Cane, offering up along the way 30 songs or snippets of tunes written by the likes of Ellington and Irving Mills, Cab Calloway and Mills, Razaf and Denniker, and, of course, Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, who wrote many standards, such as "Stormy Weather," for the Cotton Club between 1930-34. (Rosemary Loar is exploring similar musical history territory in her current show When Harry Met The Duke at the Metropolitan Room.) (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)
While his band was excellent throughout, Reid's vocals seemed a tad inconsistent, probably owing to the ambitious breath of the set list, the intimating nature of the some of the songs, and a slightly perceptible cold. T. Oliver is a charming performer, but his stage presence lacks the charisma and power to completely pull off music that was not only about fun, but about energy, emotion, eroticism, and often reckless abandon. To paraphrase a song from the show, Arlen and Jack Yellen's "Sweet & Hot," Drop Me Off in Harlem was more sweet than hot. Reid sings a few of the lesser-known numbers well, but some of the arrangements and his interpretations wouldn't make you feel you've missed something if you've never heard the songs before. While it's tough for anyone to measure up to Cab Calloway, Reid was just okay on "Minnie the Moocher," and on the Ellington and Mills song "Sophisticated Lady," he lacked smoothness and seemed to be fighting the rangy ballad throughout.
The coupling of two Arlen classics, "Ill Wind" and "It's Only a Paper Moon" could have been powerful, but the former featured a heavy-handed vocal arrangement and the latter was laden with forced emotion. Reid followed that with another overwrought vocal on Arlen and Koehler's "I've Got the World on a String," until he finally swung it a bit halfway through the song. And one of the more mystifying segments of the show was what could be called a "Minstrel Medley," where Reid donned white gloves and applied white greasepaint to his lips, creating a reverse Al Jolson blackface effect for "Am I Blue," "Black and Blue," and "I've Got the Right to Sing the Blues." At least a couple of songs in the set could have been cut to provide time for some commentary on the African-American perspective on blackface and the minstrel shows of the period. What commentary there was came next on a 1987 John Musto melody to Langston Hughes' poem "Silhouette," about the lynching of a Black man in the South.
Drop Me Off in Harlem didn't really start to cook like the fried chicken at Tillie's on 133rd Street until about the last third of the show, when T. Oliver undid the bow tie, tossed the tux jacket aside and got strong and sexy on "Satan's Lil Lamb" (Arlen/E.Y Harburg/Johnny Mercer), featuring terrific work from the band, which continued for an instrumental-only on Edgar Sampson's "Stompin' At the Savoy." On Arlen and Koehler's "The Wail of the Reefer Man," Reid held his own with Calloway's version, sounding like a dime-bag dealer seducing a prey who wants to escape a sorry life, and on the sexually suggestive "If I Can't Sell It (I Ain't Gonna Give It Away)," Reid proved he can do a funny tough chick number. He kept the swinging momentum going on Wesley Wilson's "Gimme a Pigfoot," and with a short uptempo finale on The Duke's "Ring Dem Bells." By the time the bells tolled on Reid's show, I kind of felt that while I may have been dropped off in the heart of Harlem, I wasn't quite planted in the front row of The Cotton Club.
Eric Michael Gillett's Careless Rhapsody attempted to give his audience a front row seat into the manic-depressive mind of a genius lyric writer who suffered from alcoholism and sexual identity and self-esteem issues. For Lorenz Hart, that was sure a lot of demons to deal with, but it also gave him a helluva lot of material with which to write songs about the ups and downs of love and romance, especially with a fellow genius in composer Richard Rodgers (who should have gotten more props for his contribution to Hart's success). For Gillett, this show allowed him to express his respect and admiration for a lyricist that as a kid he "didn't relate to at all," but now feels something of a kinship. Hmmm, if Gillett is dealing with some Larry Hart-type demons, they didn't quite reveal themselves until two-thirds into the show when before delivering "Little Girl Blue" from Jumbo (1935), the singer wished Hart "could have met my therapist."
Like Reid the night before, Gillette wore a tuxedo, but with an open-at-the-collar casual air befitting a 9:30 start time. And like in Reid's "Harlem" show, there were medleys and mash-ups up the wazoo, with Gillette covering 30 Rodgers and Hart tunes spanning shows from 1926 (Betsy) to 1943 (the revival of A Connecticut Yankee). Opening the show with songs like "The Heart is Quicker Than the Eye," "You Took Advantage of Me," "Everything I've Got," and "I Could Write a Book," was Eric Michael Gillett as smooth, sensual lounge lizard, polishing the sterling silver words of a classic pop lyricist. But just at the point it seemed this show would soar, there came what Gillett called a "Falling in Love Suite," that was a total downer. While within this cleverly-structured medley Gillett vocally conveyed classics such as "Falling in Love With Love," "Blue Moon," "Glad to Be Unhappy," "My Romance," "My Funny Valentine," and "It Never Entered My Mind" with a been there/done that wisdom, there was no romantic joy to be heard in this string of Hart's relentlessly meloncholy lyrics sung against one mid-tempo ballad arrangement after another. After all that angst, the bouncier "I Wish I Were in Love Again" was a welcome relief, and later in the show there was another uptempo number with "This Can't Be Love" from The Boys From Syracuse, highlighted by jaunty solos from Musical Director Don Rebic on piano and Dick Sarpola on bass.
Halfway through the show Gillett tells the story of how his long-time friend and fellow cabaret star KT Sullivan once helped him get a job at La Strada in California. He then applied his fine light opera tenor to "Villia" from Franz Lehar's "The Merry Widow" for which Hart wrote English lyrics. The irony is that Sullivan is also performing the song these days with equal flourish in her show with Karen Kohler, Vienna to Weimar. (As if New York cabaret needed another reason to seem incestuous.) But it really wasn't until "Little Girl Blue," that Gillett revealed to his audience his underlying motivation for doing this particular theme show, and perhaps injected himself as a character in the lyric at the same time.
"If there was one song I could sing to Larry Hart it would be this one," he said, before launching into a heartfelt, rhapsodic rendition (featuring a fine piano arrangement by Rebic) of Hart's plaintive and pensive words.
No use old girl
You might as well surrender
Cause your hopes are getting slender and slender
Why won't somebody send a tender blue boy
To cheer up little girl blue
If Lorenz Hart's spirit is hovering over 54 Below during this show, he must be feeling comforted by the voice of a tender, middle-aged blue boy.
Eric Michael Gillett returns to 54 Below with Careless Rhapsody on February 26 and 27 at 7pm.