Review: AND A WORLD TO CARRY ON: LAURA NYRO REMEMBERED at the Carrollwood Players

By: Aug. 23, 2015

It's a shame that many people don't know who Laura Nyro is. Whenever I mention her name, various individuals inevitably respond by squinting their eyes in confusion and uttering a single word: "Who?" Then I have to tell them that she's in the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame and, soon enough, I find myself forced to list the myriad of tunes that she wrote (but were made famous by others): "Wedding Bell Blues," "And When I Die," "Stoned Soul Picnic," "Eli's Coming," "Stoney End" and "Time and Love." Their faces soon light up, and they almost always say, "I love those songs!"

Nyro is more than just a special musical footnote beloved only by cultists; she's a major forerunner and influence of the female singer-songwriter movement, where you'll find the likes of Joni Mitchell and a Tapestry-era Carole King. Unlike Mitchell's folk roots and King's pop sensibility, Nyro was a combination of Tin Pan Alley, pop, folk, gospel and especially soul. She's sort of like Buffy Sainte-Marie meets Patti Labelle, but she's better than that odd combo suggests. Although she passed away in 1997 at the age of 49, her styling, personally and musically, perfectly suited the 1960's and early 1970's, when she was young (a mere teenager) and the world celebrated youth. It was a glorious time for music as well, with the Beatles, the Stones, Motown, Hendrix, and the San Francisco sound all meeting at the same time on the pop charts. And that's the time period where AND A WORLD TO CARRY ON: LAURA NYRO REMEMBERED, Barry Silber's biographical musical about Laura Nyro, co-written by Carole Coppinger, is rightly set.

The locally-written show is getting a full-scale production at the Carrollwood Players. I'm always urging theatre companies to test out new playwrights and plays, especially by local heroes, and it's a delight that this community theatre is doing so this summer.

Silber (who also directs here) has scribed a joyous 120-minute ode to the wonderful Nyro--an obscure (but not too obscure) artist who sang beautifully and wrote exquisitely. Her songs are ethereal wonders, creations that uplift the soul even though they oftentimes sound quite melancholy. And nobody--not the Fifth Dimension, not Three Dog Night, not Blood, Sweat & Tears--sang her timeless tunes as well as she did. Nobody comes close to the soaring pop passion of Laura Nyro.

Which brings me to Erica Garraffa, who plays the difficult role of Nyro in AND A WORLD TO CARRY ON. Never fear, she has captured everything about Nyro--her cadence, her quirkiness, and that soulful, one-of-a-kind voice. This is one of the better community theatre performances you will likely ever see. Every time Garraffa is onstage, we believe that it's the second coming of Laura Nyro, from her looks and, more importantly, from her unique sound. To give you an idea of the strength of this actress, her work reminded me of Daniel Day-Lewis' turn as Abraham Lincoln in the movie Lincoln--where the actor actually became the 16th President. Well, Garraffa is Laura Nyro, or at least the closest we will ever come to seeing the great singer live. It's a revelatory performance that needs to be experienced and that earned the standing ovation it received on the night I saw it.

Erica Garraffa is so good that any problems with the script of this jukebox musical/history lesson/love letter are almost masked and forgotten. Still, there are issues. There are too many numbers where Nyro just sits at the piano and sings (this is a musical, not a faux Nyro concert), even though Garraffa is so effective that it would only be a problem if a lesser actress/singer played the part. I could have seen more of her creative process--where Nyro didn't keep a literal diary, instead she wrote songs--and maybe we could be shown how the songs mirror her life and loves even more. The scene at Monterey--one of Nyro's most famous and misunderstood moments--should have been shown and not just mentioned in an aside. And the script so often just has characters talking about her life; the "show us, don't tell us" approach would certainly work better (sometimes the dialogue sounds like entries from The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock N Roll).

In some ways, the show seems to be missing an overall conflict. There's not a powerful enough thread, a storyline that acts as a locomotive that moves the show forward, other than celebrating Nyro's talent.

But Nyro's songs (as well as Garraffa's performances of them) transcend any qualms that we may have. Garraffa is certainly the standout (if she wasn't, there wouldn't be a show), but writer-director Silber has chosen a strong cast that plays the various parts quite well. One brilliant move of the playwrights is having Nyro's father (well-played by Fred Lasday) narrate the show. This works, although I would like to see more interaction between the father and the daughter. (There is a scene with a young Nyro, played by Madison LeVine, who steals her moment in the spotlight with a hearty rendition of "If I Knew You Were Comin', I'd've Baked a Cake.")

Another great performance belongs to Eric Misener, so good in On Golden Pond and equally as good here. He is a doo-wopper to be reckoned with in the show's second scene set in a subway station, and his bigger-than-life joy of performing knows no bounds. He also makes for a formidable David Crosby in the show's single best scene.

Misener, along with Richard Barnes, Sam Burke and Christopher Daniels, perform a memorable "Blue Moon" with strong harmonies near the beginning of the show. They are equally impressive when they join Nyro in a nifty version of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" In Act 2, Misener, Burke and Barnes return as Crosby, Stills and Nash and perform a version of "Stoned Soul Picnic" with Nyro that should not be missed (yes, imagining CSN and Nyro sharing vocals on the song made famous by the Fifth Dimension is a rare treat).

John D. Watson plays David Geffen, Nyro's manager and best friend, and although he's not as young as the actual Geffen was at the time, he does have some of the future billionaire's impishness and enthusiasm. NaTasha McKeller, Kym Welch and Yandje "Jae" Welch provide nice harmonies in their songs (though I would have liked to have heard McKeller and Welch sing as part of the Fifth Dimension, and not just hear a portion of the original 5D's "Blowing Away").

The "Eli's Coming" stand-off (call it "Dueling Eli's")--where Three Dog Night perform the song side by side with Nyro's (better) version--is a brilliant idea and definitely works.

Silber's cast is well-directed and serves the show well, even though there is a sameness in the staging of several of the songs. Bob Lorenzen's set is minimal but does the job. The costumes are appropriate, the sound is fine, and the lighting adequate. I wish a song list had been included in the program, mainly so that those unfamiliar with Nyro's genius could explore her works on their own after the show (knowing the song titles would help them).

In the end, it's all about Laura Nyro, a celebration of her life and talent. She died young, but her glorious tunes carry on to this day. For her fans, AND A WORLD TO CARRY ON is a must-see. More importantly, the people who have never heard of her need to dart on over to the Carrollwood Players to discover one of rock's lost treasures come to life in an original work. Hearing Garraffa perform "Timer," "When I Was a Freeport and You Were the Main Drag," and the lovely "Lu," as well as Nyro's more famous songs, is spellbinding.

AND A WORLD TO CARRY ON: LAURA NYRO REMEMBERED plays at the Carrollwood Players until August 29th. For tickets, please call (813) 265-4000.