Ninety per cent of the way through Sigali Hamberger ‘s very personal retelling of Ava Gardner’s tumultuous life, she stands at the back of the stage singing “I’m a Fool to Want You” (Jack Wolf/Joel Herron/Frank Sinatra) with the presence, gravitas, and longing of a torch singer. For almost the first time in the show, she’s not flailing her arms or oozing seduction. Her strong, soprano voice brings the song to life through its richness and feeling. Apparently Sinatra recorded it first when he met Gardner, then again, when they divorced. An excellent choice beautifully performed. I wish I could say the same for the rest of the evening.
Though Ava Gardner’s life was sufficiently interesting to be reflected by a wide range of musical material, too many songs simply don’t fit the entertaining but over detailed narrative. Billy Strayhorn’s iconic “Lush Life,” (during which Hamberger unfathomably smiles and flirts), is an odd opening number for a piece which is chronologically presented. Gardner’s alcohol problems didn’t begin until later in her story. The second offering, c’s usually humorous “Movie of My Life,” literally eliminates half the song because it doesn’t apply, leaving what’s left to inadequately fend for itself. The third, “Can’t Help Loving Dat Man” (Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II)— included because of Gardner’s (vocally dubbed) role in the film, Showboat, is performed (with no discernable pain or sorrow) before Hamberger’s history even takes Gardner to Hollywood.
You might say the evening really begins with the nicely set up enactment of a screen test (the director’s voice booms from offstage). “Pardon My Southern Accent” (Matt Malneck/Johnny Mercer) follows. While lyrically apt, direct from dirt poor North Carolina tobacco fields, the young fish-out-of-water would certainly have been apologetic rather than coquettishly aggressive. So, a good song, confused by performance.
“Cornet Man” (Jule Styne/Bob Merrill) would have to bend over backwards to work as Gardner’s response to coming third to Artie Shaw’s love of self and music. “For Me, Formidable” (Charles Aznavour,) though enacted with the bright zest of a French showgirl is hardly, as it’s utilized, an illustration of the star’s addiction to matadors. And “Occasional Man” (High Martin/Ralph Blane), included with the flimsy reasoning that a publicity stunt suggested Gardner owned an island, seems out of place both historically and in terms of its jazzy arrangement.
Georges Bizet’s “Habanera” showcases the artist’s fine, classically trained soprano to its best advantage, giving us a taste of Gardner’s beloved Spain. Songs by Cole Porter, Henry Mancini/Leslie Bricusse, and Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II are low key, appropriate, and well delivered. With these, her natural trill is directed and controlled.
Sigali Hamberger has beauty and talent. The thought and effort put into her show is evident. Unfortunately, much of the material suits neither her voice nor the story she tells with such enthusiasm.
A Toast to Ava Gardner
Sigali Hamberger, Author, Vocals
Scott Coulter, Director
Ido Alexander, Music Direction/Piano
The Metropolitan Room