Ethel Waters, the American blues, jazz, and gospel vocalist and actress, opened doors firmly shut before her. She rose from a nightmare childhood through the black vaudeville circuit to 1919 Harlem—eventually starring at the iconic Cotton Club, recordings—Waters was the fifth black woman to ever make records helping to popularize jazz and blues, and, Broadway—she was the first black woman in an otherwise white show, Irving Berlin’s As Thousands Cheer becoming the highest paid performer on Broadway. In 1929, she was asked to play herself in On With the Show, the first full length Technicolor film by Warner Brothers. Later, moving with the times, she starred in the television series Beulah, but quit, complaining that the script’s portrayal of blacks was degrading. During her last 20 years, she devoted a great deal of time to singing gospel for the Billy Graham crusade.
Helmed by Michael Feinstein delivering well written, intermittent narrative, the salute takes us from Waters’s rough birth in 1896 through the challenges and successes of a life powered equally by great talent and unquestionable integrity.
Feinstein himself opens the evening with an easy, swing version of “Taking a Chance on Love” (Vernon Duke/John La Touche/Ted Fetter) introduced in 1940’s Cabin in the Sky and later sings that show’s title song with the lilting simplicity it warrants. “Dinah” (Harry Akst/Sam M. Lewis/Joe Young) fits the performer’s jaunty, smiling ease like a glove. A highlight among other contributions is the beautifully understated, rarely performed ballad, “Love Turned the Light Out” (Vernon Duke/John La Touche). Feinstein is, as ever, in full, graceful command of the stage.
The splendid Catherine Russell offers Irving Berlin’s “Harlem on My Mind,” stylishly but with appropriate attitude and just the right anthem-like Heidy Heidy Ho. The song, originally written as a take-off on home-grown Josephine Baker who spoke with a French accent from the minute she made a success in Paris, is delivered replete with a rolled “r.” Showing her range, Russell’s vocals also include a jive “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” (Sam H. Stept/Sidney Clare) with great phrasing and big band presence and the down to earth “Bread and Gravy,” exemplifying Water’s (and Russell’s) unfussy ability to just communicate.
Actress and singer Tracie Thoms brings her bright, pop voice to the evening’s festivities with such as “Good For Nothin’ Joe” (Rube Bloom/Ted Koehler), “I Must Have That Man” (Dorothy Fields/Jimmy McHugh), and, to my mind, her best, “Georgia on My Mind” (Hoagy Carmichael/Stuart Gorrell), written for a woman, not the state. Neither enthusiasm nor musicality compensate for lack of consciousness where lyric content is concerned, however. Songs lack depth and credibility.
Adriane Lenox, who was the best thing about the Manhattan Theater Club’s recent production of Regrets, is, to me, a revelation as a vocalist. Appearing with marcelled hair and a flapper-like dress, the artist has us in the mood with a wink and a nod. Her rendition of“Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night” (Ethel Waters/Sidney Easton) is sassy, smart, and spot-on. Lenox talks/sings AT her man, who practically cowers before us. “Birmingham Bertha” (Harry Akst/Grant Clarke) is equally vivacious and genuine; no one is gonna put anything over on THIS dame. Lenox also leads the rousing finale, “His Eye is on the Sparrow” (traditional) with power, range, guts and infectious joy. (Russell and Thoms lend able back-up) Whatever “it” is, Lenox has it in spades.
The band is excellent throughout. Special mention should go to the many adroit saxophone solos by Andy Farber. Arrangements seem too similar to best experience the breadth of material and available talent.
As a whole, the program is lively, informative, and real fun.
Photo credit: Frank Stewart/JALC
There are two more in this worthy series:
Cy Coleman, Bringing Jazz to Broadway -May 15 and 16
Sweet & Low Down: How Popular Standards Became Jazz Classics – June 5 and 6
Jazz and Popular Song Jazz at Lincoln Center http://jalc.org/subs/11_12/jps.html
While no longer available by subscription, there are individual tickets to be secured.
Ethel Waters- Blues, Broadway, and Jazz
Michael Feinstein- Host, Director of Popular Song
Adriane Lenox- Vocals
Catherine Russell- Vocals
Scott Siegel-Supervising Producer and Director
Tedd Firth-Music Director, Piano
The Allen Room
Frederick P. Rose Hall