BWW Review: Haley Swindal Stuns in SING HAPPY: THE SONGS OF LIZA MINNELLI at 54 Below
A few minutes into Sing Happy: The Songs of Liza Minnelli, you realize there is something off about Haley Swindal. There's something about the way she is talking, the manner with which she is speaking her cabaret nightclub patter. Spending a few more minutes observing as she converses with her audience, it dawns on you: Haley Swindal isn't doing a cabaret. Haley Swindal is doing a play. In a world where people get up on a stage and speak extemporaneously, the minutia of their day turning into logorrhea with a platform, Haley Swindal uses her time in the spotlight to present a piece of theater. It's like watching a Bette Davis or a Rita Hayworth movie, something created in a time when it wasn't just acceptable to be dramatic, to have flair - it was de rigueur. Hayler Swindal has brought style and flair and an honest-to-goodness play to the stage of 54 Below, in a tribute to one of the greatest entertainers of all time, a woman who wrote the book on style and flair.
Sing Happy Is no mere tribute show. Indeed, the show may honor Liza Minnelli, but if Sing Happy tributes anyone, it tributes the women who paved the way for actresses like Haley Swindal who wanted more than to be a member of the female ensemble of a Broadway musical. Let's tell the truth: the musical theater stands on the shoulders of the people who populate the chorus -- but there are certain members of the ensemble that demand, by the mere light that shines from within to without, that they be in the center spot. They are special. They have some extra spark, the spark that cannot be quantified, the spark that moves them out front. That's the spark puts Haley Swindal in line with those women who came before, including Liza May Minnelli.
If anyone were to listen to Nancy Wilson's Cocoanut Grove concert or Diahann Carroll with The Andre Previn Trio they would hear nightclub acts that are akin to Haley Swindal's one woman show, Sing Happy. Sing Happy and Haley Swindal are reminiscent of a time when female stars took an hour or so of our lives and showed us what it was like to be fabulous, in a way that we could actually imagine ourselves up on that stage, being fabulous, too. Shirley MacLaine's Gypsy in My Soul, Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall and, yes, Liza with a Z. Haley Swindal embodies, perfectly, the spirit and era of Ed Sullivan, the Las Vegas acts of Ann-Margret, Marlene Dietrich and Raquel Welch, and the variety shows of Julie Andrews and Judy Garland. She has pizzazz, she has panache.
And she has Will Nunziata.
Mr. Nunziata and Ms. Swindal are that thing that every creative seeks: an artistic marriage. Audrey Hepburn and Givenchy, Marilyn Monroe and Milton Greene, Liza Minnelli and Kander & Ebb. This terrific twosome clearly has an understanding language between them that makes magic happen because, together, they have created a show that is so well constructed, so flawlessly written, that the audiences at 54 Below couldn't stop smiling. In fact, Ms. Swindal has surrounded herself with impeccably impressive talent. Her Musical Director, Scott Cady, has created most brilliant arrangements that stray from Minnelli's original ones when needed ("Teach Me Tonight"), pay homage to the original ones when mandatory ("Maybe This Time"), and do a little of both when possible ("Cabaret", "Stepping Out"). Swindal's show being one that includes dancing (what?! On the 54 Below Stage?! Not possible? Yes it is.), Andrew Black was brought in to create (and, in some cases REcreate) moves that fit into the small space, and perfectly. And, where there are choreography and divas, there must be boys, so handsome terpsichoreans Rashaan James II and Waldemar Quinoes-Villanueva put in some time and put on some Fosse gloves, and Haley had some boys who could lift her up and show her off, in the manner to which she should become accustomed.
Throughout the thoroughly enjoyable performance, it was fun (especially for this Minnelli devotee) to watch the audience reaction to what they were seeing. From the gasps at Swindal's picture perfect outfit (omg, the shoes), to the sighs at her heartbreaking "Losing My Mind" (one of the best this writer has seen), from the laughs that showed that someone was hearing the song "Colored Lights" for the first time, to the incredulous shaking of heads from people marveling at Swindal's unbelievable vocal prowess, the audience response to this exquisite night of entertainment was fully on display. The crowd at 54 Below (which may or may not have included a legendary Broadway composer who shares a first name with this writer) was in musical theater heaven, diva bliss and standing ovation mode, and with good reason.
In Sing Happy Nunziata and Swindal make beautiful and razor sharp decisions about which songs from Minnelli's canon to present, showcasing some of her most iconic tunes and spotlighting others that are less-known, except to the aficionados. There are songs from Minnelli movies, concerts, Broadway plays and TV specials, even a ditty or two that will surprise audience members who had no idea Liza Minnelli had sung them, and with each new number, the trajectory of the play rises and falls as a road in a rolling countryside, Liza's personal story, or your own life. With specialty lyrics that showcase some Minnelli/Swindal commanalities, brilliant medley marriages, and Nunziata's deft directorial style, Sing Happy had last night's 54 Below audience in their happy place for a little over an hour, unless one takes into account the happiness they carried home with them when they left this elegant, glitzy and glamorous night with the new diva in town: Haley Swindal.
Follow Haley Swindal on Twitter @swindah on Instagram @haleyswindal on Facebook @HaleySwindal
Photos by Stephen Mosher