It wasn’t until just before my 12th birthday during the late summer/early fall of 1967 that I became a truly passionate fan of pop/rock music. It’s not as if I was a musical luddite before that. I could listen to The Four Seasons all day, was hip to The Beatles and Motown, had developed an intense fascination for the legendary Al Jolson, and was still being influenced by the music my parents listened to and loved—1940s big bands, Broadway Musical scores, Sinatra, Garland, Gorme, Belafonte, etc.
But once I began listening to the two AM pop music radio stations in New York, I quickly became as obsessed with the Top 40 as with the major league baseball standings. So much so that when I wasn’t buying sports magazines with what little money I could accumulate, I was grabbing a 45-rpm single of every hit song on the charts. One of those discs was a song called “Different Drum” by a group called The Stone Poneys and their sweet-voiced, adolescent crush-worthy lead singer Linda Ronstadt.
Over the next decade, I would appreciate Ronstadt’s hit singles and buy a couple of her solo albums, but I never really fell in love with Linda. During her pop music prime in the early-to-mid-70s, I was much more enamored with the era’s poetic, introspective singer-songwriters—Elton John (with Bernie Taupin), Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, and Don McLean among the men; Carole King, Carly Simon, and Joni Mitchell among the women. Even by the 1980s, when Ronstadt tackled operetta with Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance in New York, and then dove into the waters of the Great American Songbook with her Nelson Riddle collaborations, I still regarded her as a lightweight because she wasn’t a songwriter, dismissing her as just a nice voice and cute face. In short, honey child, I had my doubts.
Of course, I was clueless about the real power of Ronstadt’s vocal range, which spanned several octaves from contralto to soprano, and her evocative interpretation of lyrics. Then last month, a few days before she received a 2019 Kennedy Center Honor, I saw The Sound of My Voice, the recently released Ronstadt film documentary, which surveyed her astonishing career and current battle with Parkinson’s disease that has rendered her unable to perform since 2009. Now, finally, when it comes to Linda Ronstadt, I CAN see the forest for the trees.
If and when PBS Television presents that Ronstadt documentary as a vehicle for fundraising, they might want to consider a video (when there is one) of Elizabeth Ward Land’s recent tribute show at The Green Room 42—Still Within the Sound of My Voice: The Songs of Linda Ronstadt—as a companion piece for folks making large donations. Land is the latest veteran Broadway musical theatre actor/singer to venture into cabaret, and like other Broadway babies before her (the late Marin Mazzie and Brian d’Arcy James to name two whose shows I reviewed a few years back), she decided to craft her cabaret debut around a songbook show celebrating the music or a pop singing idol she loved in her youth. And with the Linda Ronstadt canon as material, Land was able to display her considerable vocal chops on genres ranging from country to rock, from folk to light opera.
With the Green Room stage lighting making her look even more luminous than usual, Land bathed the room in warmth on a very cold New York night with Ronstadt’s cover of the Dozier/Holland/Holland Motown classic “Heat Wave,” singing the first verse as a ballad before launching into the song’s up-tempo hook. The number also allowed Land to get her guest backup singers Catherine Porter and Joel Waggoner into the act right out of the gate. Then Land flipped the tempo script on the aforementioned “Different Drum,” starting with the song’s conventional arrangement before transitioning to a ballad with a lovely cello accompaniment from Jordan Jancz (also on bass during the show). I don’t think I’ve ever heard a cabaret show that wasn’t enhanced by a cello as part of the band.
The instrumental arrangements from pianist Andrew David Sotomayor and Waggoner’s nifty harmony arrangements really stood out on a medley of “early” Ronstadt songs—“When Will I Be Loved”/”That’ll Be The Day”/”Just One Look”/”The Shoop, Shoop Song (In His Kiss)”—the latter of which Ronstadt sang on Saturday Night Live in 1979 and with Phoebe Snow on The Muppet Show in 1980.
The original Ronstadt version of Anna McGarrigle’s “Heart Like a Wheel” sounds akin to a church gospel, but on a duet with Porter, Land offered it more like a country ballad that could have been on the 1987 Trio album Ronstadt produced with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris (Land, Porter and Waggoner would combine on Parton’s “The Pain of Loving You” from that album later in the show). The song soon morphed into a medley with J.D. Souther’s “Faithless Love,” with Land singing the latter, while Porter and Waggoner kept the harmonies going on “Wheel.” Ambitious, intricate, and poignant.
As she did throughout the set, Land offered the appropriate biographical information one would expect in a tribute show. But what saved the script from sounding like your basic Wikipedia entries was Land relating how her life experiences seemed to intersect with certain Ronstadt songs at key points in her life. “You’re No Good” afforded the one-time constantly love-struck Liz Ward (before she met her actor husband Ken Land) to reveal her love affair with her married college music professor and that she once moved to Washington, D. C. to stay in a relationship with a fellow actor.
To celebrate Ronstadt’s part-Mexican heritage (father’s side) and her late 1970s/early ‘80s Latin music phase, Land sang a spicy medley of “La Tequilera” and “Frenesi,” the former a song associated with Ronstadt’s childhood singing idol Lola Beltran (known as “the Edith Piaf of Mexico”), the latter punctuated with a salsa beat and Waggoner’s violin. Land’s delivery of the Spanish lyrics was flawless.
After a lovely rendition of the ballad “Someone to Lay Down Beside Me” (from the 1976 Ronstadt album Hasten Down the Wind), came perhaps the highlight of the show in a set filled with special moments. With Jancz on cello and Waggoner on violin playing Sotomayor’s minimalist arrangement of Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou,” Land took the song into epic territory, singing it as if the tune was classical opera, yet retaining its Cajun flavor.
Land appeared to get a big kick—as did the audience—out of showing off her instrumental skills. The influence of her director Alan Muraoka (a theater actor/director also of Sesame Street fame) was clearly evident here as Land was playful tooting her high school oboe on “Pirates of Penzance,” plaintive strumming a guitar (with solid support from guitarist Kevin Kuhn) on “Long Long Time,” and passionate playing piano on her perfect encore choice, the Eagles’ classic, “Desperado.”
The only element of Elizabeth Ward Land’s delightful, delicious, and de-lovely cabaret debut show that left me bewitched, bothered, and bewildered was the omission of some of the best standards from the three Ronstadt album collaborations with Nelson Riddle. While a quickie of Friedrich Hollaender’s “Falling in Love Again,” was sweet, I would have welcomed hearing what a musical theater pro like Land could have done with Gershwin, Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart. But perhaps that’s in the works for the follow-up show? Hope we don’t have to wait a long, long time for that one.
Elizabeth Ward Land—Still Within The Sound Of My Voice: The Songs of Linda Ronstadt
Director: Alan Muraoka. Musical Director/Arrangements: Andrew David Sotomayor. Vocal arrangements: Joel Waggoner. Musicians: Kevin Kuhn (guitars), Jordan Jancz (bass/cello), Arei Sekiguchi (drums), and Joel Waggoner (violin). Featuring special guest vocalists: Catherine Porter and Joel Waggoner.
Elizabeth Ward Land will perform Still Within the Sound of My Voice: The Songs of Linda Ronstadt at the Green Room 42 again on February 15. Click here for tickets.
Opening photo: Andrew David Sotomayor and Elizabeth Ward Land
Photos by Stephen Hanks
The Green Room 42
570 10th Avenue
New York, NY
January 17, 2020