Sixteen years ago, Valerie Lemon had a vivid dream in which, opening a Victorian oak door, she was greeted by a woman in a deep blue gown and opera gloves. The stranger introduced herself as Jane Froman. Who? Lemon Googled Froman, recognizing her from the dream. Research was in order.
Jane Froman (1907-1980) was a popular radio artist who later performed in nightclubs, on Broadway, in films, on television, and recordings. Once asked to name the ten best female singers, impresario Billy Rose replied, “There’s Jane Froman and nine others.”
The vocalist was in a USO plane during WWII when it crashed in Portugal with few survivors. She sustained injuries requiring 39 operations and had to wear a leg brace the rest of her life. Nonetheless, as soon as she was able, Froman resumed her USO tour. In 1952, the release of film biopic With a Song in My Heart starring Susan Hayward reignited her career.
Valerie Lemon felt compelled to create this show. Copious personal research began with the man on whose web site she discovered needed information. He lead her to Barbara Sueling , author of Froman biopic Say It With Music and even communication with Robert Wagner who had a cameo in the film.
An infectiously happy “It’s a Good Day” (Dave Barbour/Peggy Lee) propels the vocalist on stage. Lemon intermittently shares Froman’s biography and anecdotes. Exposition is sympathetic and well placed to create a non-intrusive through line. We even hear a radio commercial of Tom’s Ever Lovin’ Toasty Peanuts. “Hers is a voice I could never hope to imitate, but I can pay tribute to her spirit and courage,” she graciously comments.
The honoree had a poor, insecure childhood. One day, her father went to the grocery store and never returned. Except in her singing, Froman developed a stutter necessitating Arlene Francis to dub dialogue for many years. A country-club-Latin “Wish You Were Here” (Harold Rome) and lilting “That Old Feeling” (Sammy Fain/Lew Brown) follow. The latter is painful in context, but not over dramatized.
“Somebody Loves Me” (George Gershwin/Ballard MacDonald and BG DeSylva) and “Embraceable You” (George Gershwin/Ira Gershwin) are performed while winding her way through the audience, flirting. You’d have to be a stone not to respond. The artist is warm and genuine. Nothing about this is frivolous.
A beautifully modulated counterpoint of “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Summertime” arrives by way of pianist Phil Hall (now vocal as well) and Lemon. Her solo portion wafts dreamy rather than stressed as is often the case (George Gershwin with Ira Gershwin, then Dubose Hayward). “George Gershwin wanted Jane to introduce `Summertime’ over the air. He promised no other artist would be allowed to sing it on the radio for a year. Gershwin kept his promise.”
We hear about Froman’s first marriage falling apart and her USO commitment. “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old” (Arthur Schwartz/ Frank Loesser) represents WW II. Lemon appears palpably frustrated.
Notes on the tragic plane crash precede “I’ll Walk Alone” (Sammy Cahn/ Jule Styne). Piano is minimal, more effective for the choice. The vocalist exudes pride and grace. After the crash, Froman spent time at the Menniger Clinic and addressed her stutter.
An Americana medley was a staple in Froman’s shows for the troops. The theater joins in several familiar, city-centric songs and ends with “America the Beautiful” (Samuel A. Ward/ Katherine Lee Bates). Citing Froman’s second marriage elicits Ira Brant/Hal David’s “Cling To Me,” an unabashed love song. Piano is caressed. (Hall has a wonderfully light, sensitive touch.) This marriage also dissolves.
Froman moved back to Missouri where she married an old friend and became a housewife active in social issues. “Goin’ Home” (Antonin Dvorak/ William Anns Fisher) is touching.
At this point in the show, we’re offered what feels like two endings, a reprise of “Get Happy” with reference to a 1959 Persian Room appearance and “I Believe” (Ervin Drake/Irvin Graham/ Jimmy Shirl/Al Stillman), personifying Jane Froman. Choosing one would benefit the piece.
The show is tasteful, engaging and deftly put together. Material is appealing. Valerie Lemon is in excellent voice. A performer who wears her heart on her sleeve, she’s fully invested, making the show extremely empathetic as well as entertaining.
Photos by David Rosen
Valerie Lemon- The Jane Froman Songbook: A Song in My Heart
Phil Hall – Piano, Vocal
Mary Ann McSweeny – Bass
The Laurie Beechman Theater in The West Bank Café
November 10, 2019