BWW Review: Billy Stritch Plays Mr. Finn's Cabaret
You can physically build a welcoming and attractive Cabaret Room (in this case Mr. Finn's at Barrington Stage Co.). You can have a name on the door that represents important musical theater (William Finn). However it really doesn't have any greatness unless the music and artists that appear on it's stage are of the highest order.
Billy Stritch and his Trio were the attraction this week at Mr. Finn's Cabaret and they impressively added to this summer's list of exceptional performers that Julianne Boyd has brought to her Berkshire night club audience. Billy has become a legend in music circles around the globe and especially in New York City, As well as being the music director for some of the country's most important entertainers ( Liza Minnelli, Tony Bennett, Linda Lavin, and Christine Ebersole among others) he continues in the tradition of legendary singer/pianists such as Nat King Cole, Bobby Short, and Buddy Greco. His vocal ability is often compared to the artistry and tonality of Mel Torme and Stritch's solo performances are always extremely anticipated musical events. Billy is also a much sought out vocal and band arranger because of his unique harmonic and rhythmic concepts. Mr. Finn's Cabaret was once again great last night and an oversold audience was widely enthusiastic as they heard one of the best in the business.
An award-winning composer, arranger, vocalist, and jazz pianist of extraordinary range and sophistication, BILLY STRITCH breathes new life into the Great American Songbook, all the while bringing an easy sense of humor and showmanship to his performances.
Born and raised in Sugar Land, Texas, Billy Stritch got his start at age 12, playing piano at his neighborhood First Presbyterian Church. Word spread about the child prodigy, and the local country club hired him for a four-year weekly gig in the piano bar. The dreaded requests came in droves, prompting Billy to rush home and learn all the requisite standards, which would subsequently fill his tip bowl! Inspiration came from jazz greats like Oscar Peterson and George Shearing, but his older sister's love for Elton John and Billy Joel opened up a new world of pop music which informs his playing to this day. After being turned on to singers like Mel Torme, Ella Fitzgerald, Mark Murphy and Carmen McRae, Stritch started to find his own voice to use in conjunction with the piano mastery.
While at the University of Houston, Billy teamed with two female vocalists and created Montgomery, Plant & Stritch. The jazz vocal trio appeared in local saloons, but soon they were playing the most important supper clubs in the country. Eventually, the JVC Jazz Festival paired the group with Mel Torme at Carnegie Hall, they became regulars at the Newport Jazz Festival, and they toured Italy with the North Sea Jazz Festival four years in a row. When the group broke up, Billy made the big move to New York City. He was playing a piano bar when Liza Minnelli stopped in, listened and immediately hired him to arrange for her "Steppin' Out At Radio City" extravaganza. This led to international performances on stage at The Palais de Congres in Paris, The Municipale in Rio de Janeiro, The Russiya in Moscow, NHK Hall in Tokyo and The Royal Albert Hall in London. He acted as associate producer, pianist and arranger for Minnelli's Gently CD, which earned two Grammy nominations, and was co-arranger with Marvin Hamlisch for Minnelli On Minnelli at the Palace Theater in New York City. His arrangements have also been performed in the annual Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall, most memorably in the "Multiplying Santa" fantasy.
As a composer, Stritch and Nashville writer Sandy Knox penned the 1994 Grammy Award-winning country song, "Does He Love You?," recorded by Reba McEntire and Linda Davis, which has sold over four million copies nationwide. The song was named one of the Top Ten Country Songs of 1994 by the readers of Music City News and also appears on Patti LaBelle's CD, Flame. Most recently, it was performed on "American Idol" by Reba McIntire and the show's winner Kelly Clarkson.
In 2001, a new door opened in the professional life of Billy Stritch. He was cast in the role of Oscar, the piano-playing crooner in the Broadway revival of "42nd Street" which starred Christine Ebersole Their show-stopping number together, "I Only Have Eyes For You", led to television spots on The Rosie O'Donnell Show and CBS This Morning. In February 2004, Billy and Christine collaborated on a nightclub act entitled "In Your Dreams" which they have performed at Feinstein's in New York, The Cinegrill in Hollywood, and Manhattan's famed jazz nightspot Birdland. In November 2004, the two released a CD also entitled "In Your Dreams" on the Ghostlight Records label and they have many concert appearances scheduled through 2005 and beyond. Billy's other TV appearances include Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall, The Today Show, The Charlie Rose Show and The Oprah Winfrey Show. He was also guest conductor for The Rosie O'Donnell Show when regular musical director John McDaniel was on the road in concert.
Billy's Trio: TOm Hubbard, Bass, Eric Halvorson, Drums
Photos & Article by: Stephen Sorokoff