BWW Review: At Metropolitan Room, Gary Crawford is Dreamy Singing the BARRY LEVITT SONGBOOK Which Is No Longer a Secret
For any cabaret performer, delivering an original song can be a nice touch in any show, but finding the right one can drive a singer crazy. The upside is that as well as highlighting the songwriter (which in some cases can be the singer's musical director) it gives the performer an opportunity to show what they can do with unfamiliar material. The combination of the two can be effective and memorable. Such was the case recently with singer Gary Crawford who along with musical director, arranger and songwriter Barry Levitt delivered a very compelling evening of songs on September 2 at the Metropolitan Room. Crawford is a lovable singer who highlighted the somewhat under-the-radar talent of one of cabaret's most respected musicians. After producing a MAC Award-winning show (for "Best Debut") in 2013-In Love With Love-and recording a subsequent CD, it was inevitable that Crawford and Levitt team up again, this time for Secret Dreams: Gary Crawford Sings The Barry Levitt Songbook.
In the packed opening night house, Crawford served as the front singer and host, while at the piano Levitt led a the terrific band comprised of Jon Burr on bass (right in photo above), Ray Marchica on drums, and Jack Cavari on guitar, each musician proving to be a true master at their craft. Crawford carried most of this eclectic, if uneven show where guest singers Deb Berman, Susan Jeffries, and Sunny Leigh performed individual solos. Crawford, in his early 70s, is a hard-working mensch with a big heart who shines with every song and exudes a love of performing that is infectious. A relative newcomer to cabaret, he served the material well in spite of some opening night jitters and ultimately did a terrific job on Levitt's mixed bag of ballads, comedy, and novelty songs. If a singer in the audience was looking for material for an upcoming act, this was the perfect place to be. Crawford deserves kudos for taking on such a diverse mix of songs with their complex arrangements and doing it without being encumbered by unnecessarily slick direction.
Gary set a lively early tone by opening with "Secret Dreams" (lyrics by Barry's wife, Brenda Levitt), a sweet up-tempo song about sharing a life with someone. A gentle salsa beat underpinned "Tough To Find Your Way" (again, lyrics by Brenda Levitt). "Little Boy Toy" (lyrics by Sunny Leigh and Crawford), was a fun romp and a crowd pleaser. Leigh resonated on "I Am His Daughter" with deft poignancy on a profound missive she wrote about a father and daughter. Pondering where songs can come from, Levitt (at piano, right) shared a riotous story about once playing for cabaret legend Margaret Whiting and later being asked to orchestrate a film in the 1970s. It turns out the commission was to score a porn flick starring Whiting's husband Jack Wrangler (Levitt left out the part about Wrangler moving on to find considerable recognition within the cabaret community as an in-demand director.) Segue to Crawford singing Levitt's "The Devil in Miss Jones" originally sung for that iconic porm film by legendary jazz crooner Johnny Hartman.
Another standout from Crawford was "Touch Me" with his own lyrics (along with Myrna Yee), a beauty worthy of more attention. It was one of Crawford's shining moments in the show, along with a melancholic "A Moment Ago" (lyrics Crawford and David Rosenak), a wrenching story about a lost love for which he also wrote the lyrics. This one seemed to touch a very personal note. Another high spot was when the poised and professional Deb Berman charmed the room with her usual brio on "All In Good Time," a riveting up tempo gem with lyrics by Peter Napolitano that was the title song for Berman's 2010 cabaret show and has been much covered since. Susan Jeffries' take on "Bombshell" (again lyrics by Napolitano) was sexy and fun with some backup vocals from Levitt.
Crawford brought so much heart and soul to the melodies of Barry Levitt that many of them sounded like familiar tunes. The duo exudes a musical rapport and depth of artistic communication--enhanced by incredible backup from the band--that is rare these days. At times, it was like watching dance partners executing complicated maneuvers with enough finesse to make it all look easy.
Barry Levitt's songs are beautifully textured and his ballads filled with emotion and can't help but move people. He has long been acknowledged as a master conductor of swing bands, orchestras, and great cabaret singers and now he should get his due as a first rate songwriter. Overall, Secret Dreams: Gary Crawford Sings the Barry Levitt Songbook, was an explosion of musical fireworks in which every note and chord vibrated with a gleaming ferocity.
Photos by Lou Montesano/Still Rock Photography