Miles and Miles and Miles of Heart

Holding that banner high, Mabel Mercer Foundation’s Artistic Director KT Sullivan helms a Valentine show exploring love in song. Maestro Jon Weber opens this evening with a cornucopia of ‘heart’ song excerpts, seamlessly sliding from one genre to the next.

Marissa Mulder, “Valentine #1,” offers a warm, stylish “Come Fly with Me,” (Jimmy Van Heusen/Sammy Cahn), her bright sound as open as her arms. “Where the air is (eyes close) rarefied,” she sings, infectiously happy. I’ve seen the artist perform Noel Coward’s “Chase Me Charlie” a number of times. Mulder never ceases to be the epitome of feminine flirt. “Chase me Charlie!” she pouts, speaking at one point. “If you’ll appear and be gay with me/Play with me/Stay with me…” She teases gleefully.

Quiet settles like a flannel blanket with “The Nearness of You” (Hoagy Carmichael/Ned Washington). Arms at her sides, the artist’s whole heart is on display. Mulder closes with the iconic “Isn’t It Romantic?” (Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart), a slow dance. Recalled? Longed for? As if partnering with pianist Jon Weber, the two gracefully turn, dip, glide. It’s dreamy and evocative.

Sullivan then adds the last, rarely heard, politically incorrect verse of Romantic as sung by Maurice Chevalier in the film Love Me Tonight: “Isn’t it romantic?/ Soon I will have found some girl that I adore./Isn’t it romantic?/ While I sit around my love can scrub the floor./She’ll kiss me every hour or she’ll get the sack/and when I take a shower she can scrub my back…” The vocalist parodies Chevalier.

 “Valentine #2” is Jeff Harnar. His first choice, “I Love You” (Harlan Thompson/Harry Archer), is a grateful nod to Phyllis McGuire who gave the artist his start in the business. It arrives as a bouncy duet with longtime collaborator Alex Rybeck singing “Three Little Words” as Harnar lyrically reels off a number of McGuire Sisters songs. Next is a sophisticated “Love Is a Bore” (Jimmy Van Heusen/Sammy Cahn) whose wry, bitter delivery finds Harnar’s tongue firmly in cheek as if to say, you’ve been warned.

Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart’s “My Funny Valentine” starts a capella, Harnar’s eyebrows in a peak, voice feathery. Rybeck tiptoes in stroking his keyboard. This is a humble, grateful love. “Stay,” the vocalist whispers.  “My mom and dad eloped to Las Vegas in 1952. This Tony Bennett song was theirs. I’m here because of them – and because of you,” introduces a cool 1950s arrangement of “Because of You” (Dudley Wilkinson/Arthur Hammerstein.) It’s restrained, but palpably sincere. “In my ha-a-he-a-rt” Harnar sings…to his mom.

Sullivan then joins Harnar for a gossamer duet of “Some Enchanted Evening” (Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein II), both artists contemplative; its ending airbrushed. Oh, their expressions! Rybeck’s arrangement is a lovely vocal interweaving.

Natalie Douglas is “Valentine #3. She opens with a signature “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” (Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II). For a lyric whose central theme is loving in spite of, this iteration is curiously smiley. The Shirley Bassey tune, “Never, Never, Never” (Alberto Testa/Tony Rennis; English lyric Norman Newell) continues in kind, a happy face with opposing lyrics: “I’d like to run away from you/But if you never found me I would die/I’d like to break the chains you put around me,/But I know I never will…” “That song makes me so happy. It’s ridiculous because it’s so sad.,” she tells us. Discrepancy takes a toll.

Written as a tribute to June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash, “I Don’t Feel Like Loving You Today” is presented in country western mode. Mid-range and cottony, this one comes from the back of Douglas’ throat. The sound is swell, but there’s that grin again. Only “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” (Ewan Maccoll) matches glad presence with lyric intention. Douglas dedicates this to her husband of 29 years and we feel every sentiment. She’s inside this one. (Jon Weber piano.)

“Ain’t Love Easy?” written by Carol Hall for her husband, is dedicated by KT Sullivan to hers. Ribbons of vibrato unfold. Not a single gesture distracts from channeled emotion. This is weathered love. “It was almost a year ago we started sheltering in place. I used to be out almost every night,” the artist reflects. A refreshing “Ain’t Misbehavin” (Fats Waller/Andy Razaf) is vaudevillian schmaltz with raised, waving hands and a kick. Weber gets fast and loose on piano.

Tonight ends with Sullivan’s rendition of “Love Is Here to Stay,” the last melody written by George Gershwin with lyric added later by Ira Gershwin. Performance is unfussy, straight from the hip. The song arrives with a sense of reassurance. “You Gotta Have Heart” Weber plays. Too true.

The Company

Expert Tech by Chidua Thomas
With thanks to Mabel Mercer Foundation Board Chairman Charles Bullock for the splendid white piano.

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Photos Courtesy of KT Sullivan
Opening: KT Sullivan, Marissa Mulder, Jeff Harnar, Natalie Douglas

The title/song is one of community encouragement:

You’ve gotta have heart
All you really need is heart
When the odds are sayin’ you’ll never win
That’s when the grin should start
You’ve gotta have hope
Mustn’t sit around and mope
Nothin’s half as bad as it may appear
Wait’ll next year and hope…

Richard Adler and Jerry Ross from Damn Yankees

About Alix Cohen (1007 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.