BWW Review: Melissa Errico Tackles the Big Questions of Life and Art in FUNNY, I'M A WOMAN WITH CHILDREN at Feinstein's/54 Below
"Where am I? Am I doing okay? Does this make sense? Was that okay? Did I mean it that way? Did I understand that?"
In preparation for her return engagement at Feinstein's/54 Below, Melissa Errico was looking for answers, but she ended up with far more questions. In fact, much of the Tony-nominated mother of three's life and career as of late seems to be cloaked in indefinable uncertainty. She recently penned an op-ed for The New York Times detailing the confounding reality of being an actress who is not yet old but no longer "an ingénue" and yet continues to work in the business of Broadway.
Errico is all too aware of the current impasse of her life and, in an embrace, she dedicated her show, FUNNY, I'M A WOMAN WITH CHILDREN, to that very not-knowing. Nearly all of her songs throughout her performance on September 20---the first of four in her run---had the central theme of questioning because, as artists have done for centuries and which Errico set out to do this evening, to make sense of life through art is any creator's most powerful capability.
On the nose, then, was her first song, James Taylor's "Secret of Life." With the conclusive lyric, "The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time," the wistful tune was apt thematically, of course, but was also a prudent demonstration that, any uncertainty of her positioning in life aside, Errico's voice would show no such trepidation throughout her 85-minute set.
"Secret of Life" segued into a story about fake eyelashes and Liza Minnelli which consequently also allowed for Errico to immediately make clear the simultaneously loose but minutely-crafted tone of the concert, directed with gusto by Robbie Rozelle (to whom Errico offhandedly apologized as she would be veering "off-book" through the show's entirety). Errico's accompaniment for the evening was an orchestra of one: Tedd Firth on piano, who also served as musical director.
Sinking her teeth into the set, Errico sang the first of several Stephen Sondheim songs, "Small World," from GYPSY (lyrics by Jule Styne). Errico is perhaps as well known for her signature soprano belt as she is for interpreting the great composer, having appeared in various productions of his work throughout the years. The intensity of his writing is matched by the intensity of her voice, which is not meant to denote a harshness of either artist, made exemplary by this selection. It also supplied Errico with the moniker for this very show.
Errico skillfully conceived multiple mashups for her set, the first of which blended Joni Mitchell's "People's Parties" with Randy Newman's "Real Emotional Girl." Though commanding the stage with shoulders-back confidence this evening (in a dazzling black dress, I'll add), Errico revealed that she was actually an austere child, who once had to be coaxed by her mother to attend a dance. Perhaps no two artists more effectively convey the turmoil of insecurity than Mitchell and Newman, which could also explain Errico's gravitation to these types of singer-songwriters. Though considered "pop," they have an air of musical theatricality to them in their emotionally-wrought melodies, yes, but also in the storytelling structure of their lyricism.
Usually, Errico explained, she gives out treats when she performs. At her last string of shows, she threw candy into the audience; however, it resulted in some very minor injuries (if there is an implication about the lack of athleticism amongst musical theatre audiences, I won't be the one to make it). This time around, she opted for a less perilous but nevertheless delectable treat: a cut song from MY FAIR LADY entitled "Shy." The song was ultimately replaced with "I Could Have Danced All Night" as it was rendered too saccharinely romantic, but that was of no concern to Errico, and its tinkling softness which built towards a powerful climax of desperation may have caused the creative team to think twice before its elimination.
Last seen in 1993, Errico remains Broadway's most recent Eliza Doolittle. Rumors of a forthcoming revival swirl and the Great White Way will likely embrace a new Eliza. However, in revisiting the Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe score, with her instrument soaring in the precise manner it was intended, Errico and her audience rejoiced that, in this instant, she still held the title of Broadway's Eliza Doolittle.
The evening picked up pace with a segment including "Ribbons Down My Back" from HELLO, DOLLY! (which allowed Errico to speak of the night she got together with her husband, pro tennis play Patrick McEnroe), followed by ONE TOUCH OF VENUS's "I'm a Stranger Here Myself," brimming with questions in nearly each verse, rounded out by another mashup, "First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" and "Marry Me a Little" from COMPANY. The cluster of songs, particularly the latter, epitomized Errico's ability to mesh and traverse through genres, blending her classical soprano sound with songs that can veer jazzy.
Having been in the business for decades, Errico has amassed numerous leading men or, as she put it, "kissed and married a lot of New York." One such dashing fellow joined her this evening, the opera singer Richard Troxell. The two sang "Take the Moment," followed by the title song from DO I HEAR A WALTZ? which the duo starred in together in an Encores! production this past spring. In pairing two powerful instruments, one can run the risk of either voice overpowering the other or, worse, the two together overpowering an audience. Such was not the case here. As Errico's wail swam forcefully through the torrent of that belonging to Troxell, the tunes (with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Sondheim), provided one of those too-rare moments of musicality that actually are as impressive as they are intended to sound.
As the evening winded down, the set delved even further into the introspective, first with a song from Errico's past, "Blue Like That," an original tune featured on an album she put out in 2003 after being signed to a record label. The song was, unsurprisingly, stylistically similar to the pop numbers she had sung earlier. She followed with the last of her mashups, the most cunning of the night: two Brazilian songs, "Photograph" and "Fotographia." The songs once again allowed the songstress to display the heights which her voice can effortlessly reach, if they didn't serve to add anything new to the already impressive evening.
Errico's final song was "Always Better" from THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, a short-lived 2014 musical adaptation of the book-turned-film, featuring a score by Jason Robert Brown. Brown has quickly become one of Broadway's most esteemed contemporary composers and, singing one of his songs, it became clear that Errico's voice, though wonderfully suited for the musicals of yesteryear, is not unable to embrace a modern show as well. Actually, it would be a thrill to see her do as much.
Before that final song, Errico squeezed in a last number about questions. This one, though, had more to do with answering than asking. "Children Will Listen," the song of guidance from INTO THE WOODS, was prefaced by Errico's describing the quest to veer her own children well. It is undeniably seeped in the irony that adults, though older, are often as clueless as their young counterparts. "I am given their essay," Errico said of her children's many quandaries, "and it is my job to give it a headline."
The song exemplified the paradox of Errico's concert revolving around big questions--- that being, she has no answers. She, like everyone, is simply doing her best at any given moment, navigating tumultuous terrain---be it motherhood or a new role---while remembering to pause and absorb the good.
Just before saying goodnight, Errico reflected once more. Having just moved to the suburbs, she acknowledges more than ever that it can feel daunting or nearly impossible to take a single step further into uncharted territory. "Turn the page, people," she said sternly. "Turn the page." And with that entreatment, Errico showed not a trace of uncertainty.