Review: FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE: THE SONGS OF RON MILLER Is a Thriller of a Show at 54 Below

It's moving! It's Motown! It's magnificent!

By: Oct. 25, 2023
Review: FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE: THE SONGS OF RON MILLER Is a Thriller of a Show at 54 Below

Sometimes a music event can seem to capture as much magic and emotion as an old fairy tale and, likewise, has an impact that will long be recalled. For Once in My Life is one of those memorable nights of songs and stories. It’s moving.  And, like a rewardingly good read, it’s well-paced and has engaging personalities. In an old once-upon-a-time tale you may recall, the character referred to as the Miller’s Daughter is the one ordered to spin straw into gold; it’s impossible for her, but a strange fellow with magical powers appears and agrees to do the trick if she’ll promise that some day, when she gets married, she will give him her firstborn.  The deal can only be broken if she can guess what his name is.  She does find out his unusual name (Rumpelstiltskin) and there’s a happy ending. When it comes to the man celebrated in For Once in My Life, the Miller is Ron Miller, the man who wrote the words to that famous song it’s named for, and this Miller’s Daughter is his offspring – Lisa Dawn Miller – presenting and preserving his work.  And the gold is in her voice and the gold records.  Her firstborn, now 23, Oliver Richman, is in the program with his own golden touch. (More on him below.)

F.Y.I., L.D.M. and her A-O.K. company don’t have to depend on help from magical imps popping up with a quid-pro-quo agenda.  She is able to host this toast with no need to grasp at straws to come up with interesting behind-the-music tales she spins about her late father’s time as staff writer at Motown and beyond. Maybe Ron Miller would be more of a household name stuck in your brain’s database if it were not such a common name — you know, like the memorably unique “Rumpelstiltskin.”  But the general public tends to be far more aware of the names of those who sing the songs. In the case of Ron Miller, who wrote some lyrics you might already know well enough to sing along with, those singers’ names include Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Barbra Streisand, Gladys Knight & The Pips, and many others. And, now and then, he wrote the music, too – such as in “I Want to Come Back As a Song,” which was effectively used to start the show, with a tape of Mr. Miller singing it himself. Well, guess what: He HAS come back as a song. This 2023 is just part of a series of concerts and projects that will bring him and his songs to the radar, ears, hearts (and charts).   

Review: FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE: THE SONGS OF RON MILLER Is a Thriller of a Show at 54 Below California-based Lisa Dawn Miller came to New York City this month for this incarnation of the tribute which she plans to take, in different forms with various guests, to venues around the country, eventually leading to a full-length bio-musical for the theatre.  She’s been busily writing the script for Act One.  Meanwhile, she brought For Once in My Life to life at Manhattan’s classy nightclub 54 Below, where it was rapturously received, co-producing it with a 54 mainstay, Robert W, Schneider.  Its future is as bright as her sunshine-spreading smile.  And when she takes her place on the stage for “A Place in the Sun,” the optimism and determination banish any possible clouds. Bringing some history in person, Bryan Wells (pictured below with L.D.M.), who composed the music so many years ago, was on hand. 

Review: FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE: THE SONGS OF RON MILLER Is a Thriller of a Show at 54 Below

Wells shared his recollections about working with Ron Miller and the night’s pianist, Michael Lavine (another 54 regular) relinquished the keyboard to him for a few minutes. And the younger generation was very present, too, ably handling the passed torch to take on the songs that can feel nostalgic but vital. Thus, the fortunate audience was able to discover the talents of Gabbie Ballesteros, Sofia Campoamor, Saviidu Geevaratne, and Deana Cowan. And Lisa dedicated her empathetic embrace of “If I Could” to the 20-somethings. I’d first heard her sing this earnest desire to be a protector (a collaboration with Kenny Hirsch and Marti Sharron) on her solo album Fly Away, and it’s mega-poignant in person.  Speaking of “poignant,” the cello playing of masterful Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf brought great depth and beauty to the music in the band that also included Sean Decker on bass and music director/drummer Ryan Rose.

Two men with Broadway credits joined in the songfest, too: Kalonjee Gallimore (A Beautiful Noise) and Aladdin’s longtime Genie, Major Attaway.  There was variety, vivacity, and verve.

Two numbers on the set list have been part of other productions that Lisa and her husband, Sandy Hackett, tour with and produce about show biz legends – and they were emotional high points as employed and enjoyed here.  With “45 Seconds of Love,” he (pictured below) Review: FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE: THE SONGS OF RON MILLER Is a Thriller of a Show at 54 Below deftly brought special reflections on audience approval and a remembrance of his own celebrated father, comedian Buddy Hackett. And she reprised her high-powered solo from their Rat Pack show, “Wasn’t I a Good Time.”   

Speaking of those guys known as The Rat Pack, Ron Miller’s biggest hit, “For Once in My Life” (music by Orlando Murden) was recorded separately by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis. Jr., and by so many more — like Robert Goulet, Carmen McRae, Michael Buble, and Michael Amante — just to mention four with rhyming surnames, the last of whom did it in a duet with a certain Lisa Dawn Miller.  But she didn’t claim it for herself on this electrifying night.  So, who would get the assignment?  And would it be  done in the indelible jubilant manner of Stevie Wonder’s hit or the slower, heartfelt ballad style as favored by Tony Bennett and others?  A tough choice.  So the smart decision was …BOTH!!  First, exquisitely tender, then, suddenly, bursting into the “Wonder” of upbeat Motown: a  double-header of sensitivity AND sensational celebration.  And the perfect performer up for -– and up to — the challenge was someone who’d already recorded his own version of it several years ago on its 50th anniversary: the lyricist’s grandson – the grandly gifted Oliver Richman (seen in pics below).

Review: FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE: THE SONGS OF RON MILLER Is a Thriller of a Show at 54 Below The performance was dazzling and charismatic.  I can’t say I was surprised, since I’ve been knocked out, year by year, by his voice, versatility, and vulnerability via the audio and video samples that have emerged, one by one.  Void of artifice on aching ballads, Oliver Richman’s sweet high notes and gentle spirit can send a shiver up my spine which seems to send a signal to my tear ducts.  And his happy place is a location I want to buy tickets to.  He also arranged the voices for the ensemble finale which was a blend of “Heaven Help Us All” and an exhilarating reprise of “For Once in My Life.”  For once in my life, I was speechless. 

Review: FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE: THE SONGS OF RON MILLER Is a Thriller of a Show at 54 Below Dedicated daughter Lisa Dawn Miller is a woman on a mission.  She’s determined to keep her father’s legacy thriving now and into the future. She referenced the long struggle to regain control of material tied up in limbo or worse when rights were lost or signed away in unfortunate and/or unfair “legal” maneuvering. Tenaciousness paid off.

Review: FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE: THE SONGS OF RON MILLER Is a Thriller of a Show at 54 Below

Other spoken comments let us get a sense of the man, foibles and all, his work, his work ethic, and the romance with Lisa’s mother, Aurora, who was his first and last songwriting partner. 

We reviewers get spoiled by seeing so many top acts and can become a bit blasé. But sometimes we are bowled over by something extra special. For Once in My Life: The Songs of Ron Miller is one of those.  

Photos courtesy of Lisa Dawn Miller and company.

More info on Lisa Dawn Miller HERE

More on Ron Miller HERE