Minda Larsen hails from the south and harks back to her past with some frequency. But no more so than in her tribute to Johnny Mercer, a Savannah child, who shared some circumstances of upbringing including a conservative, southern Christian youth. Nonetheless both abandoned the south to “make it here”. On Thursday, December 10, Larsen reprised her Mercer show: “Trav’lin Light” at Urban Stages (a venue that itself deserves further attention for its grass-roots theatrical efforts.)
As a child Mercer, scion of a financially comfortable family, summered in North Carolina. He was broadly exposed to music in Georgia and North Carolina – and early showed his passion for music, creativity, poetry and humor. He exercised that interest throughout his school years and brought it with him to New York in 1928 (at the age of 19). It was not too many years before Mercer became a member of ASCAP and the “Tin Pan Alley” brotherhood including Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and George Gershwin. Somewhat frustrated with his moderate success here – in recording and theater, he made his way to Hollywood where he enjoyed a stellar success in the still new movie industry.
Mercer was a singer, composer and lyricist – the last, of more than 1,500 songs – including 4 academy award winners (from 19 nominations): “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” (with Harry Warren), “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” (with Hoagy Carmichael), and “Moon River” and “Days of Wine and Roses” (both with Henry Mancini). Notably Mercer also collaborated with Richard Whiting and Harold Arlen. Together with these men he created a significant part of the “American Songbook” and filled the movie and Broadway theaters of the time with his songs. His list of lyric hits seems endless and endlessly varied: “I’m an Old Cowhand”, “Goody, Goody”, “Ain’t We Got Fun”, “Day In, Day Out”, “Fools Rush In”, “Jeepers, Creepers”, “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby”, “Blues In The Night”, “Skylark”, “I’m Old Fashioned”, “Laura”, “Satin Doll”, “Autumn Leaves” (from the French original), “One for my Baby”, “That Old Black Magic”, “Come Rain or Come Shine”. To find enough Mercer songs to create a tribute seems not to present a significant challenge. It is little wonder that Minda Sings Mercer! is rich with musical gems.
Larsen radiates warmth and an appealing lack of pretense. She glows with a sense of joy and surprise, and while she exhibits the requisite seriousness when the songs call for it, her ready smile makes its way into her voice. Her show is nicely larded with anecdotes of Mercer’s career – some more widely known than others – and segues from each into an apropos Mercer number. Often Larsen would draw the parallels between Mercer’s life and her own. Larsen reveals among other things that shortly following Mercer’s arrival in New York he eloped with a Jewish show girl and that Larsen, after arriving in New York, ran off with a Russian acrobat. Mercer, too, was seen as unpretentious, despite his ambitions; and the diversity of his work suggests an admirable (and ultimately, a much appreciated) abandon.
The depth of the Mercer catalogue means that the arc of the show is not highly constrained. On the plus side, it leaves a great deal of material that might be mined without duplication – perhaps for a second show.
Larsen is formally trained in opera and has performed with the New York Philharmonic, American Symphony Orchestra, Little Orchestra Society, and at Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, and the TriBeCa New Music Festival – among others. Now and then one hears that training asserting itself in the phrasing of a line and hints, to the listener, of the stylistic cross-over. But, for the most part, it remains behind the scenes providing unseen support – contributing nicely but unobtrusively.
Larsen opened with a straight (and lovely) rendition of “Skylark”, followed by a lightly swinging “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” and an easy and warm version of “I’m Old Fashioned”. She sang another dozen Mercer classics in various flavors before resolving with “Moon River”. My particular favorites included “I Had Myself a True Love” and “The Days of Wine and Roses” – both lush, melodic ballads. The songs, despite Larsen’s loving renditions, invite by their familiarity, a susurrus of audience participation. Larsen’s encore was a “thank you” to the audience: “Too Marvelous for Words”. Too marvelous for words – yet words were Mercer’s gift, and this evening, Larsen’s gift, and both were holiday treats. Keep an eye out for a return of the show. Music direction for this show was provided by Neal Kirkwood; his accompaniment was sophisticated and elegant – yet unobtrusive, as is Mr. Kirkwood if our brief meeting is telling. Artistic direction was provided by Peter Napolitano, a principal, producer and director with Urban Stages.
All photos by FredCohenPhotography; to see more of Fred Cohen’s Cabaret photography, click here.