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BWW Reviews: EVAN STERN & STEVE ROSS Are Utterly Charming at The Player's Club In Examining Southern Influence On the Songs of Johnny Mercer

Monday night at the upstairs library at The Player's Club, young actor/vocalist Evan Stern (left in photo) collaborated with one of cabaret's treasures, the veteran pianist/arranger/vocalist Steve Ross on a show illuminating the influence of a southern upbringing on the work of iconic songwriter and Savannah, Georgia native Johnny Mercer. Moon Country: The Songs of Johnny Mercer's South was beautifully put together with Stern's intermittent repartee (never dropping a musical stitch), reflecting his skills as an actor as well as a writer. Lighthearted badinage showcased the artists' mutual appreciation.

Johnny Mercer was born in 1909 and until he died in 1976, he was a lyricist, singer, founder of Capitol Records, and a major contributor to what we now call "The Great American Songbook." Mercer's work was mainly influenced by his early exposure to jazz, blues, and gospel, and he ultimately wrote the lyrics to more than 1,500 songs, including tunes for Broadway shows and movies, garnering 19 Academy Award nominations and winning four.

Stern and Ross more than did Mercer's classic compositions justice. Stern has a light, mid-tenor voice with faint, back-end vibrato. Immensely personable and low key, he imparts numbers with easy expression rather than slick performance. "Mercer was an open air writer whose lyrics were inspired by the countryside . . . he had summers like a lost Mark Twain version of America." Citing the subject's early interest in birds, Stern offered a solo rendition of the iconic "Skylark" (music by Hoagy Carmichael), then a tandem duet of "Bob White--Whatcha Gonna Swing Tonight?" (Bernie Hanighen) and "Mister Meadowlark" (Walter Donaldson.) The latter was jauntily performed with appealing interjections. Stern: "You put me in an impossible key." Ross: "Call The Audubon Society."

Arriving in New York as a stowaway on a steamer, Mercer (photo right) auditioned for The Garrick Gaieties only to be told they didn't want actors, just songs and pretty girls. He promptly wrote "Out of Breath and Scared to Death of You" (Everett Miller) conceivably about a young dancer who would become his wife. Here Stern embodies the classic 'anyone for tennis?' ingénue. We believe every word. "Pardon My Southern Accent" (Matt Malneck) aptly follows. When I say, do ya love me all you gotta say is sho'nuff . . . Very cute.

Mercer's first hit, recorded by Mildred Bailey, was "Lazybones" written with fellow southerner Hoagy Carmichael, whom Mercer affectionately called a "young, bouncy butterball." Stern's vocal fittingly pronounces cornmeal as "conemeal" and potatoes as "taters." Accompaniment is a graceful soft shoe. Inflection is also employed for "I'm An Old Cowhand From the Rio Grande" which the vocalist points out has a more authentic lyric than Cole Porter's "Don't Fence Me In." "What cowboy would say I want to ride to the ridge where the west commences?!" Stern is an urban cowboy, but no more than Bing Crosby who popularized the song. (See video below.)

A highlight of the evening was the succession of three eminently southern numbers performed as duets: "Moon Country" (I long for that moon country/That possum and coon country), "Down T' Uncle Bill's" (Down a-mong the hills/there'll be all kinds of cous-ins/'rrivin by the dozens), and "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" (all written with Hoagy Carmichael) replete with many of its alternate endings. Stern's eyebrows rose as he stepped side to side clearly enjoying the ebullient lyrics. Ross turned half facing us. Harmony ensued.

Also infectious was "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" (Harold Arlen) apparently inspired by a Baptist sermon. Stern grew expansive, dancey, arms opened wide. The audience was encouraged to join the chorus with lyrics printed on the back of the program. "Can somebody give me an Amen?" And for the duet on "If I Had My D'ruthers" (Gene DePaul) from the musical L'il Abner, which evoked such nonchalance, Stern laid an elbow on the stool and crossed a leg. Stylish interjections bloomed. This one just made us smile.

Only "Fare Thee Well to Harlem" ("Originally an Amos and Andy-like duet with musician Jack Teagarden") and "Blues in the Night" (Harold Arlen), written for a film character to sing in a jail cell, suffered in translation. Stern hasn't the jazz or blues feel for either of these. (A quote from Margaret Whiting about first hearing the latter at a party is priceless.)

The duo ended with a song whose first lyric to Henry Mancini's tune was I'm Holly/Like I want to be/Like Holly in a tree back home . . . It is, of course, the Academy Award winning "Moon River" from Breakfast at Tiffany's. Stern's rendition was tender and guileless. Watching the performance of the song by two artists who perceive it at vastly different points in their lives created a kind of full circle explaining its universality. Moon River's success re-launched Mercer's career at a time when tastes were radically changing. An inlet near Savannah was renamed for the song and its native son. Again, the audience sang along.

Arrangements were terrific and ranged from ragtime to swing to swoon with a particularly original take on "That Old Black Magic." Musicianship was top of the mark.

The entertaining show will be repeated at The Bruno Walter Auditorium on Monday October 19, 2015. Admission is free.


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