Richard Holbrook: Twenty Plus Three in 2023

Richard Holbrook winds his way to the stage with Stephen Sondheim’s “Old Friends” – acknowledging people, taking hands. “…Here’s to us,” he sings “Who’s like us?”- then spoken, “Damn few.” The vocalist explains his show was stopped in its tracks by the pandemic and arrives three years late. Judging by the packed room, audience was waiting with anticipation.. Deft melding of “I Feel at Home with You” and “Thou Swell” (Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart) exude gratitude. He’s where he belongs, performing in this city.

Song choices and sequencing are smart, eclectic. “Sunday in New York,” in stylish soft-shoe tempo, is not the usual Sunday title choice. “This was written by the stern nun that helped the Von Trapp family escape,” he notes referring to a character in The Sound of Music. When Holbrook recognized and addressed actress/writer Portia Nelson on a soap opera set, the surprised artist responded, “Who remembers nuns?” Nelson’s “Confessions of a New Yorker (Hate/Love New York)” expressively follows. Phrasing is sharp and wry, pauses effective. Fingers entwine and release with ‘”love” or “hate.”

“Another gifted performer and songwriter” introduces Ronny Whyte/Shiela Astill’s “A Penny for Your Thoughts, New York.” Holbrook ruminates as if visualizing each memory. “Anything Can Happen in New York” (Burton Lane/ Yip Harburg) equally showcases the vocalist’s understated grounding and Harburg’s wonderful lyric: Once Mr. Woolworth didn’t have a dime/And Irving Berlin didn’t have a rhyme/And Thomas Dewey didn’t have a crime/But anything can happen in New York! Holbrook “gets” the attitude with which early songs were penned.

Donning a too-small straw hat, “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life?” (Burton Lane/Alan Jay Lerner), the vocalist creates a scene-in-one. He conjures the wise-cracking character fluently dropping consonants, singing out of the side of his mouth. Gestures are droll. Even Tom Nelson’s piano has a sense of humor. A rendition of “Too Late Now,” also from the film Royal Wedding, is without its usual insouciance – the saddest I’ve ever heard; completely believable. Nelson adds musical drama.

Three songs from Holbrook’s show, The Untapped Fred Astaire, offer an original trio of selections. Irving Berlin’s slap happy “Drum Crazy” conjuring Astaire’s tapping his way through a toy store trying to convince a child to give up a stuffed Easter bunny in exchange for drums, ends with a nifty drum solo by Peter Grant.

“Slap That Bass” (George and Ira Gershwin) features Tom Kirchmer’s almost choreographed musicianship, hand flying out and landing back to precisely plucked strings. “Fascinating Rhythm,” (George and Ira Gershwin) finds Nelson’s fast fingers crisply hitting and sliding on keys with jazz feel as his shoulders rise and fall.

From Charles Aznavour’s oeuvre, we hear “Le Temps” (Jeff Davis/Charles Aznavour/Gene Lees); a tremulous, parlando “Quiet Love” (Aznavour/ Fred Ebb) during which the artist plaintively expresses himself in sign language; and a show stopping “What Makes a Man a Man” (Charles Aznavour). Throughout the latter, Holbrook becomes effeminate (not over the top). Balletic hands manifest specific personality; a proud, puzzled, and finally angry appeal. Piano is decidedly dark. Audience cheers.

Lighter choices reflect professional and personal victories. Holbrook arrived in New York with no resources and no place to live, managed to support himself in tandem with singing that garnered award nominations, and ten years ago, conquered cancer of the jaw only to return to the stage. “They All Laughed” (George and Ira Gershwin), “I Happen to Like New York” (Cole Porter), and an utterly lovely “Here I’ll Stay” (Kurt Weill/Alan Jay Lerner) exude warmth. The vocalist is a heart on two legs in a natty suit. (Thanks to the band for dressing.)

Kudos to Jeff Harnar who’s brought out the actor in this performer. (A little more looking AT the audience – not into it, please) Collaboration has fashioned an engaging  evening with humor, pathos and flare.

Photos by Maryann Lopinto

Richard Holbrook: Twenty Plus Three in 2023
A twenty-three year celebration of singing in New York
Directed by Jeff Harnar
The Tom Nelson Trio: MD/Piano – Tom Nelson
Tom Kirchmer – bass; Peter Grant – drums

54 West 54th Street
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About Alix Cohen (1750 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten 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, TheaterLife, 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.