Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
“She lifted the art of life and sang to the height of excellence…” Rex Reed
Helmed by journalist/author Rex Reed, her intimate friend, Thursday’s New York Cabaret Convention salute to Sylvia Syms (1917-1992) is as illuminating as it is entertaining. The well produced event features affectionate, amusing, well balanced recollections by Reed and those appearing vocalists who knew her, as well as numbers out of Syms’s repertoire.
In 1992, Reed tells us, he was awakened by “an angry, urgent phone call” from Liza Minnelli. “We lost her,” she sobbed. Sylvia Syms had a heart attack and “dropped dead into the arms of Cy Coleman” while in performance at the Oak Room of The Algonquin Hotel. “When I go,” she told me a thousand times, “I wanna go in the middle of a standing ovation.” Our host is a terrific storyteller.
We begin with the inimitable Barbara Carroll. Syms asked the pianist to play on her first album in 1951. Discovering Carroll worked until 2 am, the recording was schedule for that hour. A piano tuner was even awakened when the studio instrument was found lacking. With Jay Leonhart on bass, Carroll plays “I Wanna Be Yours” and “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” making them, as she does everything, her iconoclastic own. Listen to the winking integration of classical influence, to the reflective retards, complex notations, and utter clarity.
Highlights of the evening:
“As wonderful as she was with ballads, she could also be a very funny broad…she said: If you wanna know what I sing like baby, go home and tear up a rag…I don’t care what anybody does in bed. I just wish they’d do it to me once in awhile.” Jay Leonhart’s rendition of “I Always Say Hello to A Flower” is perfect, deadpan drollery. One forgets how well the consummate bassist can sing. (Tomoko Ohno-Piano)
Barbara Carroll; Carol Woods
Syms, it seems, liked to rescue songs. “Big Fat Heart” was cut from the musical Seesaw. Carol Woods’s version is conversational and expressive. There’s an oomph to her delivery adding geniality. Later we hear “Pick Yourself Up” from this vocalist. It’s kind of preaching, full of infectious brightness and optimism. (Barry Levitt-Piano)
“Despite her impeccable taste in ballads, she would also swing…” At 17, Syms would be snuck into 52nd Street jazz clubs by sympathetic doormen, sequestered in hat check rooms so she could listen and observe. Reed credits her with spontaneously supplying Billie Holiday’s famous gardenia, apparently meant to cover a hole burned in her hair one evening before a show.
Nicolas King swings in with “Looking At Me”/ “That Face”/ “Look At That Face” as polished and robustly rhythmic as a full fledged member of the Rat Pack. The man gets this to his bones. In Act II, King offers “Here’s That Rainy Day” with full, rarely heard verse. The melancholy number emerges meticulously controlled, subtly modulated. A lovely interpretation. King covers the stage, drawing in his audience with awareness and flair. (Jon Weber-Piano)
Nicolas King; Billy Stritch
Accompanied by Tedd Firth, Billy Stritch takes center stage, offering only vocal for a change. “Mountain Greenery” is jacked-up and jazzy. The understated Stritch plays with repetition, octave slides, scat, and rhythm making a virtuoso turn seem easy. Later, at the piano, he sighs “It Amazes Me” leading us to empathize with every surprised and grateful lyric. There’s no doubt the performer could’ve made a career as a vocalist if he so chose.
There are stories about Syms’s 3am telephone calls, her appreciation of gossip, uncensored, sometimes caustic opinions, terrific loyalty, generosity, and of Francis Albert Sinatra’s undying devotion.
The ever vital and savory Marilyn Maye sings “Fifty Percent” with powerful authenticity: I don’t share his name/I don’t wear his ring/There’s no piece of paper saying that he’s mine/But he says he loves me, and I believe it’s true/Doesn’t that make someone belong to you? We believe every dramatic, confessional word. Maye returns with “Anyplace I Hang My Hat is Home,” starting with unexpected a capella, launching into swing with her very own superb grace and brio. (Tedd Firth-Piano)
Marilyn Maye; Ann Hampton Callaway
Ann Hampton Callaway is, for my money, the highpoint of the evening. When this vocalist is on stage, she becomes an additional musical instrument. An originally interpreted Fats Waller medley is propulsive, crisp, and sassy. The artist steps from side to side, shoulders slightly swaying and covers a bit of ground as if she can’t stand still. It’s Happy. Her second contribution is one of the plumiest versions of “Skylark” I’ve ever heard. Tedd Firth caresses the piano; Hampton Callaway embraces lyrical meaning-both swept away romantics. Leonhart’s bass solo is like a bird hitching a ride, backstroking on a breeze. Radiant.
Reed himself sings two heartfelt numbers. The second, “You Keep Coming Back Like a Song” reflects “how I felt about her personally and saying goodbye.” It’s moving.
Before we close, our host has the discernment to play Syms’s own voice for those who are unfamiliar and to remind others. “At the time of her passing, she was planning a new album …” We hear an ardent “I’ll See You Again” (Noel Coward) with almost constant, quiet vibrato, lyrics exiting like smoke rings. Silvia Sym’s portrait looks on smiling.
Also featuring: Joyce Breach, Maud Hixon, Daryl Sherman, Marti Stevens, Sally Mayes, Tom Wopat, Jay Leonhart-Bass; Ray Marchica-Drums
All unattributed quotes are Rex Reed
Opening: Stephen Sorokoff; Other Photos Maryann Lopinto
The Mabel Mercer Foundation presents Saluting Sylvia Syms Hosted by Rex Reed The 27th New York Cabaret Convention Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater October 20, 2016
Charlie Poveromo and the Barry Levitt Quartet (CP&BLQ) played the Metropolitan Room on August 10 to a packed house and a rousing response. Poveromo is a “discovery” of Bernie Furshpan who owns and manages the Met Room. The two of them filled the room with friends; still, the audience response was unforced and wildly enthusiastic.
The CP&BLQ confounds expectations in a number of ways. First the mix of musicians is uncommon – even in New York. Barry Levitt, musical director and accompanist, has been in the business for over four decades and has worked with such notables as Eartha Kitt and Judy Collins; Jeff Carney, on bass, worked with Streisand; Jack Cavari, on guitar, worked with Frank Sinatra; Ronnie Zito, on percussion, with Bobby Darin. These are particularly strong sidemen to be gathered in a bunch – each with assurance, experience and “chops”; each capable of drawing focus. Together they produce a spectacular sound – loud, driving, pulsating, often scintillating. And the quartet, with all of their experience and pedigree, were of a mind and discipline to serve this singer – taking no extended solo flights but skillfully and subtly embellishing the accompaniment when and where suitable – producing frequently unacknowledged but real rewards.
And at the microphone stands Charlie Poveromo, a 20 year old from Staten Island, slight, slim, suitably Italianate, looking like a strong breeze would carry him off; yet confident, brassy, and big in every other way. Poveromo is as assured off stage as on and, during the sound check, introduced himself while I am snapping pictures. I don’t know if it is his heritage, or the streets of Brooklyn and Staten Island, or his family, or his talent or the constant reassurance of his community – but something in his upbringing gave this “kid” an outlook we would all like to imbue in our children.
Vocally he projects an impression, but yet not an imitation, of the men on whom he models his style (Darin, Martin, Bennett, Sinatra – you get the idea). Yet in one-to-one conversation Poveromo is notably present, affable and unassuming. He has a voice and a talent; neither are yet fully matured or disciplined but the promise is evident. And with Levitt and Furshpan to guide him, he has significant prospects of major success – as the music and style of the era is refreshed and revived.
Poveromo is an avowed fan of Bobby Darin (who, if memory serves, he resembles): “Bobby Darin left behind a legacy which will not be forgotten – as long as I’m singing.” Poveromo opened with a Bobby Darin classic, “As Long as I’m Singing” – and had the audience clapping along within 8 bars. A performance of “Ace in the Hole” (Panico, Schoebel) ala Dean Martin (also a Bobby Darin number) followed with some of the original’s glissandos and melismas. Next “That’s All” (Tharpe, Rosetta), “Rags to Riches” (Adler, Ross), “Ain’t that a Kick in the Head” (Van Heusen, Cahn) – were performed as if for the Palladium – snapping, bopping, winking, and voiced for the rafters. There is a fragrance of Las Vegas about the CP&BLQ production, perhaps a conscious souvenir of the Rat Pack. And the patter aims for the smart-alec snap of the Rat Pack as well: “You can snap your fingers, clap your hands, kick the waiters. That’s okay as long as you do it in tempo.” Songs we rarely hear today but which filled the airwaves decades ago were reinvigorated, and brashly performed: “Goody, Goody” (Mercer, Malneck), “Splish Splash” (Darin, Murray), “That’s Life” (Duke, harburg), “Mack the Knife” (Brecht, Brecht, Weill, Blitzstein).
If I had a problem with the show as a whole it was for a lack of emotional range, but Poveromo may grow into that. (At one point in the evening, Poveromo described having recently suffered his “first big heart break” – at which a number of my generation in the audience chuckled with sympathy but knowledge of what greater depths he has yet to plumb.) Levitt, with his broad experience, might well point the direction here. Even a performance of “Let Me Try Again” (Cahn, Anka), a tender and gentler song than most on the program, was sung with the same firm, powerful exposition, and with as little concern for nuance, as any other number. And Poveromo also has to learn to be still at appropriate times; that less is often more. Nonetheless one has to admire the current talent and significant potential. The encore number, “Lazy River” (Carmichael, Arodin), was begun a capella, and on key; the patter was constant and had an edge; the voice is powerful and solid, the pace was crisp and the energy was high.
Poveromo grew up in a community and family (many in attendance) with strong character which has reinforced in him a style that has served him well in that context. However it may be time for him to find his own if he will expand his audience. This young man is a natural entertainer – by personality and practice; now he has a little work to do discovering himself and finding his emotional footing in the music he so admires. This show may not be eveyone’s cup of tea, but Poveromo can hardly be said to be less than engaging and, in some way, energizing. It will be interesting to see how he grows as a performer. Poveromo is next appearing at the Metropolitan Room on September 14 and November 13; check the calendar for times.
Mabel Madness is an intimate show, in an intimate theater, about an intimate performer. Mabel Mercer was a resilient and stalwart figure in the history of cabaret who significantly influenced the American music scene in the mid-20th century. Mabel Madness, which ran a brief 80 minutes in the preview I attended, is rich with song, but it is crafted and performed as theater.
Trezana Beverley did what performers have done for centuries to gain a platform – she wrote her own drama, in this case, one that focuses on Mercer. The story is peppered with songs, most recorded by Mercer, and two composed for the show by Barry Levitt, a much-admired New York musical director, with lyrics by Peter Napolitano, the director of Musical Theatre.
Deconstructing the facts of Mercer’s life, Beverley reweaves them into a story that is personal to her.(I note here significant disparities between various Mercer bios but, for purposes of this review, I have relied on the facts relayed by Beverley.) Beverley is a much decorated graduate of the NYU Tisch School for the Arts, has sung and acted on stage and screen (winning a Tony for her work in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf), and has directed for the stage; she is currently part of the guest directing faculty of the Julliard School in New York City.
Mercer was credited with being the vocalist story teller. This performance, while tracing Mercer’s life, purports to tell us how that very successful focus arose, albeit painfully, from Mercer’s life. I heard Mercer myself only late in her career when I assumed she had adopted her style to accommodate a diminished voice and encroaching age but, in the course of the evening, I learned otherwise – and a good deal more that I had never known and would never have guessed. Is this a history that one has to know to be accounted a fully cultured person? Perhaps not. But it is an interesting story affectingly told. Beverley has, through her locution and singing voice, nicely evoked Mercer’s style and stage persona, and decorates the history with enough personal details, and Mercer songs, to bring the story to life.
The history is related as reminiscence shared by Mercer while nervously preparing for a performance, arranged by her near life-long promoter Donald Smith, after a long hiatus from the stage. Mercer was the product, in 1900, of a youthful dalliance in England between a white, British, teen-aged musical hall performer and Ben Mercer, a black vaudevillian acrobat. Mercer was admonished always to call her mother Emily “Auntie Em.” A shy child, Mercer’s mother forced her, against her will, to speak the Queen’s English and to project her voice. As a small child, Mercer turned to her Grandma Whadem for emotional shelter and was ultimately abandoned by her mother to her grandmother’s care in a household of relatives.
Mercer was subsequently swept from that very Catholic and condemnatory context to be deposited in a local nunnery; mom moved to America and adopted the name Emily LeBlanc. Beverley relates a bit of Mercer’s traumatic history with the nuns, her graduation onto the street at 14 with only her mother’s New York address, stints in the music halls of London and Brussels, back row parts in Showboat, her move to Paris in the mid-20s, and effective adoption by “Brick” (nee Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith, another mixed race child who became a mainstay of café society) and her life-long agent Donald Smith.
Mercer became the toast of Parisian cabaret – she was befriended by Cole Porter and Duke Ellington, was sought out by the nobility of England and drew the cultural luminaries of the age: Picasso, Chaplin, Channel, Olivier, Gabel and Grable, Marlena Dietrich and her lover, Jo Carstairs. Dietrich paid Mercer’s reluctant way to America in anticipation of the Nazi occupation of Paris. Mercer reached out once again to Auntie Em, and arranged to meet her mother. When Mercer asked whether she might call her and acknowledge her as “mother,” Auntie Em promised to “think about it.” Subsequently struck with tonsillitis, Mercer’s surgery was footed by Carstairs who then spirited her to a private Island in Nassau for recovery. There she met and fell into love with Kelsey Farr, a gay, black singer, who promised her all the emotional room she might ever need; they were wed and returned to New York.
Later Mercer was courted by Harry Beard, soon revealed to be married but unable to wangle a divorce, who promised he would never leave her; he did not. Ultimately Mercer was sought out as a role model and teacher by the likes of Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, Barbara Cooke, Billie Holiday and, most notoriously, Frank Sinatra, who credited Mercer with teaching him how to phrase a lyric. That skill she apparently got from Auntie Em who repeatedly coached her to tell a story, to act a part.
Whether as a matter of necessity or simple internal strength, Mercer lived by her own rules – never having had the guidance or shelter of a traditional family. She was timid, tough, tenacious and independent. She was sought out and feted as a performer and, only after her mother’s death, came to appreciate some of the scant good Auntie Em had done for her.
There is a sweet dénouement to the arc of the show which, for dramatic effect, I will refrain from sharing. Suffice it to say that Mercer was a triumphant survivor who started with little and made the most of it; she made loyal friends and gained life-time admirers; she imprinted her style on the golden era of American song like few others. She is a part of the history of American musical performance. The history would benefit by being more frequently anchored to external events, but Beverley’s telling is an appealing way to take in this history and learn more about Mercer’s remarkable life.
Frances Hill and Peter Napolitano are co-directors; Tuffus Zimbabwe provided suitably unobtrusive musical direction; Gail Cooper-Hecht, costumer design; Tabitha Pease, scenic design and Christina Watanabe, lighting. Nicholas Blade Guldner provided video design – which effectively superimposed people and places on the rear scrim to illustrate Mercer’s recollections.
Tanja Hayes Photos
Mabel Madness will be performed at Urban Stages at 259 West 30th Street through March 20, 2016.