Mama Morton’s been sprung. After years of brightening stages in Kander and Ebb’s Chicago, Carol Woods returns to cabaret with Ain’t We Got Fun – The Richard Whiting Songbook. A tribute to his daughter, friend and mentor, Margaret Whiting, the show features Hubert “Tex” Arnold, Margaret’s Musical Director of over 23 years. Woods doesn’t do things in half-way measures.
“Margaret, you’re humming along, and, by the way, how did you like the song?” comes from a lovely piece of special material written for the iconic vocalist. Words ostensibly spoken by her daddy preface “My Ideal” the first song Margaret ever recorded, her first gold record. (Music credit shared with Newell Chase/lyrics Leo Robin.) Woods appears to be full of ingénue hope, palms open and extend as if welcoming. Latin-tinted drums rob a bit of the sweetness, but we believe ever word.
“Can’t Teach My Old Heart New Tricks” (lyric- Johnny Mercer) is more like a haunting than memory. By the time the arrangement slows to a Gershwinish coda, we’re as unmoored as the performer…but not for long.
“Sittin’ On the Curbstone Blues” erupts in feisty, red hot mama mode punctuated by hand gestures. There’s a fresh chicken fried/I can smell it outside/But it don’t mean a thing to me…complains an errant, locked-out lover. Bright and wry, Woods vocally shrugs, there’s lots of fish in the sea. (Lyric by and music credit shared with Haven Gillespie and Seymour Simons) This artist has known Margaret’s daughter, Debbie Whiting since she was three and distinctly remembers her wailing for fried chicken. A coincidence?
In similar vein, from the distaff side, “Somebody’s Wrong” is a vexed, hip-swingin’ honky-tonk shuffle… Nobody brings candy and things/I’m just nothing to no one it seems…how is this possible she seems to say…the world owes me a lovin’…Just for a moment, Woods assumes a Mae West stance. Don’t they know what they’re missin’?! Somebody’s wra-h-ho-ho-hong! She’s got this! The story-song is ably served by well honed acting chops. (Lyric-Raymond B. Egan/Henry I Marshall)
Arnold tells us that one day, in a stack of old writing by her grandfather, “the keeper of the Whiting flame” (Debbie) found a song called “A Day Away From Town” (lyric-Gus Kahn). The number, in Richard’s handwriting, was so provisional, there were no chord changes. Nor was it copywritten. Arnold filled in the blanks (“melody harmonized by”) and Woods was the first to record it. The vocalist starts low and slopes up as if seeking open spaces. It’s an easy sway, a deft soft-shoe, skylarking.
A second illuminating story reveals that lyrics for “She’s Funny That Way” – I Got a Woman Crazy for Me were originally a love letter left by Richard for his wife when he was called to Hollywood. Mrs. Whiting asked composer Neil Moret to write music and one of the great ballads was born. Woods sings it with gratitude, surprise and soul. A beautiful song just got more beautiful. Whiting, who clearly might’ve written lyrics too, penned such Hollywood classics as “On the Good ship Lollipop” and “Hooray for Hollywood.”
“Too Marvelous For Words” (lyric-Johnny Mercer) with bass vertebrae and exuberant piano and “Beyond the Blue Horizon” (music credit shared with W. Frank Harling/ lyric- Leo Robin) swung with syncopated beat and happy anticipation bring up the mood. It’s a rendition of 1928’s “Ain’t We Got Fun”, however, that carries us bopping out into the night. Woods is an evangelist for cheer, so full of light, the room resonates with optimism against all odds. (lyric/music credit shared with Raymond B. Egan/Gus Kahn)
Though patter could use a little work, this is an extremely entertaining show. Woods delivers genuine vulnerability and carefree pleasure as well as she does husky-edged lock n’build. Scott Coulter’s Direction is deft.
Good to have you back.
Richard Whiting was a multifaceted composer of songs for vaudeville, records, and films. There are eras during which you can’t musically turn around without brushing against one of his fine tunes.
Photos by Maryann Lopinto
Opening: Carol Woods, Saadi Zain
Carol Woods: Ain’t We Got Fun- The Richard Whiting Songbook
Directed by Scott Coulter
Hubert “Tex” Arnold- MD/Piano
Saadi Zain-Bass, Steve Singer-Drums
The Metropolitan Room
34 West 22nd Street
NEXT: August 22 & August 29, 2016