Elvira Tortora’s rich, full-bodied voice arrives as if tutored and practiced over years of performance. In fact, arrival on a cabaret stage occurs after 23 years in the garment business. Droll storytelling has the flair of someone who might’ve worked at Your Show of Shows or The Late Show, yet the artist declares she’s not a writer. Comic timing is subversively funny. Kudos to director Lena Koutrakos, but Tortora’s own rhythm and wry outlook are elemental. The Bookmaker’s Daughter is a cabaret/theater crossover. And oh, you’ll laugh!
Raised in Brooklyn by a homemaker mother and bookie father who was employed by a particular group of men of Italian descent, the artist had what she describes as a normal, loving childhood. Aside from family vacations wherever dad had business, a kitchen table piled with stacks of money then literally gift wrapped to be covertly delivered elsewhere, and the regular appearance of luxury items that fell off a truck, she grew up feeling neither different, nor wary. Conversational observation and unconditional love permeate this unvarnished tale and the show built around it. There’s neither affectation nor exaggeration. The performer is likeable, disarming.
Tortora begins with her parents’ first encounter. Felice Tortora had no immediate plans to marry. “One of the Great Ones” (Glenn Slater/Alan Menken – A Bronx Tale) is framed as advice from friends: “There’s a kind of a girl who can send your heart whirling away/But those are the kind you don’t happen to find every day …” The wedding had to be postponed while her dad-to-be spent some time upstate. Afterwards, lifestyle changes occurred.
“Now I Have Everything” and “Married” is a warm, expressive combination. The Tortoras were happy together. (Sheldon Harnick/Jeffy Bock- Fiddler on the Roof; John Kander/Fred Ebb- Cabaret) Like any kid, their daughter picked up her father’s work vernacular: scratch sheet, handicap, and stool pigeon were common terms. Her 13th birthday party was unusual.
At college, the artist majored in – wait for it – accounting. She looked and sounded like an opera singer; her heart was with musical theater. Appraising herself as no ingénue Tortora never pursued her dream. Instead she embarked on what would become a highly successful career in fashion. Her sister wanted her “settled.” The career woman was content. “I’m All I’ve Got” (Ronny Graham/Milton Schafer – Bravo Giovanni) is quick and sharp edged with tones of tango. Attitude is proud, independent and decidedly not defensive.
“With So Little to Be Sure Of” is here not inspired by a man, but rather her devoted sister. Tremulous and sincere, it manifests their bond. (Stephen Sondheim – Anyone Can Whistle) An original arrangement of “Something’s Coming” emerges with understated piano, yet no less vocal anticipation than commonly swollen versions. The performer’s nose crinkles, her eyes close, nostrils flare. Except for an intrusive jazz phrase, the fresh take is effective, more human than showy. (Stephen Sondheim/Leonard Bernstein – West Side Story)
We hear about a fortune teller who foresaw Eddie, the man who would become her husband. Stephen Sondheim’s “Marry Me a Little”, spoken, then segueing into song, sounds as if she’s trying to convince herself. It’s consequential. “Ok, then- RIGHT!” comes the decision as her fist punches down. An enormous, dual religion wedding follows with wise guys in yalmukes. Twenty years later, Tortora’s waltzy “Married” finds her grateful and content. “See a palace rise/From a two room flat/Due to one little word/ “Married… (John Kander/ Fred Ebb- Cabaret)
Bespoke arrangements suit the vocalist. Gregory Toroian’s markedly restrained approach coaxes and caresses the piano. Layers like rice paper create discreet undertones. Music behind repartee is elegant and apt.
Gestures are few, small, selective. The artist has articulate hands. Focus is on lyric meaning. Skilled vocal control, warmth and range are showcased. We’ve taken a well calibrated, grown-up journey with Elvira Tortora. I look forward to the next one.
Two caveats: 1. Dad’s bosses also took bets on fighters. Chance meeting of a young boxer and his girlfriend elicits “Raining”(Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty- Rocky). The song is splendid, piano glissando lovely, vocal well acted, but subject matter feels outside natural trajectory. 2. The artist doesn’t look AT us enough.
Photo of Elvira and her Dad courtesy of the performer
Elvira Tortora: The Bookmaker’s Daughter
MD/Arranger/Piano Gregory Toroian
Director Lina Koutrakos
REPEATED Thursday February 1 at 7 p.m.
Don’t Tell Mama
343 W 46th St, NYC