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BWW Review: Molly Ryan's 'Cheeky' Tribute to Mae West Is a Frisky Revelation at the Metropolitan Room

"I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it." --Mae West

How much do most of us know about Brooklyn's own Mary Jane "Mae" West (1893-1980) other than that she was an iconic sex symbol who had a wicked sense of humor? It's common knowledge she acted and sang, but are you aware she was a playwright and screenwriter? Did you know she didn't make her first film until the age of 39 and never drank alcohol? Jazz vocalist Molly Ryan has done her homework, presenting a smart, multifaceted woman who was, outside her carefully constructed persona, "the epitome of modesty." Though narrative needs to be edited, her show Come Up and See Me Sometime at the Metropolitan Room (which completed a three-show run this past Wednesday night) is an excellent mix of history and anecdote making a case for increased appreciation of the subject.

The show's title song (Louis Alter/Arthur Swanstrom) is unabashed enticement. Ryan can smoothly transition from brightness with appealing vibrato trail to stage-whispered come-on. "I Was Saying to the Moon" (Arthur Johnson/Johnny Burke from Go West Young Man) emerges two-step piano with light vocal. It's simply lovely. Understanding the intimacy of good cabaret, the performer looks into people's eyes. Ryan is not imitating Mae West in this show rather she's channeling her.

"Mr. Deep Blue Sea" (Gene Austin/James P. Johnson from Klondike Annie, based on West's play Frisco Kate) is sultry and blue. Notes flexibly bend and twist. Tempo is measured ragtime at which Ryan's Musical Director/Pianist Jon Weber excels. There's a bit of spontaneous hip action here. More of this would spice up excellent vocals.

Three numbers from I'm No Angel (Gladys DuBois/Ben Ellison/Harvey Brooks) include the "Peel Me a Grape" line evidently inspired by a pet monkey who did just that. I've always had a sugar daddy (da-ah-dy) with plenty of sweets for me . . . Ryan sings, fading the lyrics' back-end suggestively. Few could deliver the phrase I'm high, I'm low . . . as it arrives, without affectation. Love me honey, like you just don't care . . . she requests filled with anticipation.

Guest vocalist Carole J. Bufford offers two songs that are right up her alley: "Mr. Blue Note" and "A Fool There Was" (both Beverly West/Otto 'Coco' Heimel.) There's apparently no sheet music to the first song which West's sister Mildred recorded, so a few words, we're told, are questionable. It's low, paced and sassy. Bufford does a little dance to Weber's ragtime. The lady can imply wailing with emotional force, eschewing raw musical edges. "Fool" is as torchy as a mute horn. Almost the entire song embraces vibrato adding to its pith. Bufford fits right in this program.

"He's A Bad Man" (Irving Kahal/Sammy Fain) has a burlesque sound that conjures images. So mean, so rough, so tough, so good . . . Ryan "remembers," dropping down to her haunches and rising again. Lyrics seem to arch their backs. The vocalist can be brassy or honeyed; combination makes a song. "A Guy What Takes His Time" (Ralph Rainger) is the preference of a streetwalker here. Ryan rolls the words around her mouth with sensual focus. I don't know how the men in the club experienced this, but I wanted to move. The show closes with a gorgeous, unfussy version of "My Old Flame" (Sam Coslow/Arthur Johnson), settling as tenderly as morning dew on grass. It sounds--innocent.

Ryan's Mae West tribute is a thoroughly entertaining piece by an artist who has terrific feel for the period and vocal ability to support it.

Photos by Neal Siegal

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From This Author Alix Cohen