“The British invasion” Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano point out, did not, in fact, begin with the Beatles. Long before arrival of The Fab Four, songs from music halls and London’s West End found their way across the pond. This upbeat show is an appreciation of material that enriched our canon. Songs, Fasano says, for Lady Mary and her grandchildren. (Referring to Lady Mary Crawley in PBS’s Downton Abbey.)
A jaunty opening bookends past and present with Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile” and Eric Idle’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” One can practically feel the mood in the club improve. Comstock then offers “London By Night” (Carroll Coates): Most people say they love London by day/But lovers love London by night…painting with his voice and piano. Fasano’s “These Foolish Things” (Eric Maschwitz/Jack Strachey) arrives in an our song interpretation. The vocalist takes her time, allowing each warm emotion to expand into the air. Control is pristine.
A wry “Everything Stops for Tea” (Al Hoffman/Maurise Sigler/Al Goodhart) is cited as an example of the British Songbook seeing a lighter side to life. Songs that take that point of view about immigration, trade, depression, stalking, sexism, and alcoholism follow, a few apt lines each.
From The West End, we’re treated to Comstock’s tandem “Who Can I Turn To?” (Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley- The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd) and Lionel Bart’s “Where Is Love?” (Oliver.) The performer adds sweetness to melancholy in a splendid low key rendition.
Out of the pop world, Fasano delivers Tony Hatch’s “I Know a Place” (with a few lines from his “Downtown”) and “I Only Want to Be with You” (Mike Hawker/Ivor Raymonde). Hatch’s songs are accompanied by a practiced Frug. The Hawker/ Raymonde is treated without flippancy in a more sophisticated arrangement adding appeal.
“A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” (Eric Maschwitz/ Manning Sherwin) is wistful but not wispy in these skilled hands. Fasano shares the piano bench with her husband. Traditionally a solo, the lyric suddenly becomes shared nostalgia. Both vocalists had evidently recorded the song and decided after 12 years of marriage it was time to perform it together. The last verse floats down like a feather in the wind. He kisses her shoulder.
Pairing the eclectic “The Wind in the Willows” (Vivian Ellis/Desmond Carter) popularized by the great Leslie Hutchenson with Sting’s “Fields of Gold” is sheer Comstock/Fasano. Expect the unexpected. Comstock’s version of the first is lovely. Fasano sings the second shoulders back, a signature stance when she’s serious. Gestures come from further away gaining territory and importance. Fingers splay for emphasis. The “character” is stilled by overwhelming emotion. “We’ll Meet Again” (Ross Parker/ Hughie Charles) showcases the innately cool talent of jazz bassist Sean Smith. Oddly, Noel Coward’s iconic “London Pride” is arranged as a sashay robbing it of gravity.
In Billy Reid’s “It’s a Pity to Say Goodnight”: It’s a pity to say goodnight/Because I want you to hold me tight/But if gotta go home, you gotta go home/Give me a goodnight kiss…Fasano make’s “howzabout” a literate word. Flirting, she bounces, adding a bit of hip and shoulder action.
The evening closes with a beautiful version of “If Love Were All” (Noel Coward). …Cares would be ended if I knew that he (pause)/Wanted (sigh) to have me near…
Photos by David Rosen
Downton Abbey Road: The Best of Britain
Barbara Fasano &, Eric Comstock with Sean Smith-Bass
Birdland 315 West 44th Street
December 20, 2016
ONE MORE SHOW Thursday December 22
The young cast and creative team of New Georges’s production (the debut of Hilary Bettis’s Alligator) creates some of most unnerving, operatic theater I’ve seen this year. Prepare for deception, desperation, primal instincts, wrenching love, graphic violence, astonishing psychological insight and vivid articulation. Add sex, a gun, bloodied animals and relentless surprise – accompanied by trenchant music. Brava.
Whomp! Assailed by electric bass, keyboard and drums, we motley tourists are seduced and galvanized by an evangelistic bally (pitch) Weeeeelcome, weeeeelcome, weeeeelcome ya’ll … I hope ya’ll are ready to be amazed here today. Are ya ready? I said are ya ready? Oh now folks, I can’t hear ya!…Prodded, the audience yells back affirmatively.
If the Florida Everglades had a wrong side of the tracks, we’d be there. Ty (Dakota Granados) has ripped arms, ripped jeans, and ripped boots. He wrestles alligators. ANYTHING at any moment could go wrong! There could be blood! There could be buckets of blood!…
At the other side of a circular pit of murky water, his snarling twin sister, Emerald (Lindsay Rico), looks on with contempt. She’s drunk. Always. Emerald, Ty tells us, can read alligator minds. She can also, it seems, summon the creatures. A blazingly primitive dance ensues. In the pit. The girl faces a slatted door from beyond which comes intermittent hissing. We’re riveted.
After an (unseen) show, the misfit siblings blame one another for poor business. Emerald has a mouth like a crude truck driver who swallowed a thesaurus. Having mostly raised themselves, they’re slavishly codependent, though in denial. We don’t learn strengths and burdens till much later. Palpably visceral fighting – in the wet pit – flows organically from expletives. Emerald removes her costume and wig demanding Ty go into town and steal more whiskey. She disdains food.
Dakota Granados, Lindsay Rico
Lucy (Talene Monahon), a self avowed “searcher”, appears with her duffle bag when Ty leaves. She’s seen the show and, mesmerized by Emerald, declares unconditional obeisance. (The character talks like a Ferlinghetti poem – endless colorful impressions with minimal punctuation.) All the object of her adoration wants, however, is liquor – which the stranger just happens to have. “I stole the bottle from an old man in Australia who turned his back to pee.” As long as Lucy can supply, she’ll be tolerated. In doing so with tenacious artifice, she inadvertently affects every relationship in the play.
Ty doesn’t return that night. He’s spending time with childhood best friend Danny (Julian Elijah Martinez), whose football scholarship provided escape to a life of egotistical excess on a silver platter. I won’t tell you about the men’s ungovernable bond, which ricochets with the impact of a pinball made out of a grenade.
Meanwhile, we observe simple minded Merick (Samuel H. Levine), and his “princess” Diane (Lexi Lapp), a wispy, solitary girl who volleys back elaborate fantasies of pink castles filled with babies. Merick has enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve to prove manliness to his father. “My recruiter says everythins’ just like a giant video game and I’m really good at video games.” The Corps is sure to eat this innocent alive. Corruption touches him before then, but with counter-intuitive results.
Samuel H. Levine, Lexi Lapp
The last inescapable, spellbinding connection is that of Emerald and an Alligator (Rex – Bobby Moreno) who haunts the scenario as if Captain Hook’s beast were conjured by Jung or Baudelaire. Whether the eloquent, savage presence is actual doesn’t matter a whit. He was here in the Paleocene Age and will remain after we’re all gone – Emerald’s alter ego and walking death. Jessica Scott’s fabulous puppet/costume melds creature and actor. Its controlled jaw, spilling gut, and a dangling piece of plastic can holder, I gather the reptiles can’t digest, add immeasurably.
Playwright Hilary Bettis interweaves her embattled characters with unerring, hell bent aptitude. How she knows what she knows is a mystery. The variety and credibility of even her most outrageous invention is startling. One lengthy description of pig slaughter is about as evocative as it gets. Language is gloriously rich and raw, never inappropriate to context.
Bobby Moreno (background), Talene Monahon, Lindsay Rico
It would be unfair to call out only one or two players in such a splendid ensemble.
Lindsay Rico (Emerald) blazes through the piece at 150% commitment, as if possessed. A virtuoso performance.
Dakota Granados (Ty) morphs seamlessly from bravado to heartrending emotional casualty.
Samuel H. Levine and Lexi Lapp balance each other’s ability to personify naivete and vulnerability. Levine’s unexpected awakening is a nuanced pleasure to watch.
Julian Elijah Martinez’s Danny and Talene Monahon’s Lucy have less visible trajectories. Martinez’s accent is a bit hard to understand at the outset. The actor dramatically comes into his own in agonized conflict. Monahon seems less purposefully wiley and hard than suits her character.
Bobby Moreno’s Alligator is Shakespearean. We don’t need to see the performer’s face to be utterly affected.
The company throw themself into inhabiting Bettis’s world both literally and theatrically. I imagine most have multiple bruises and are prone to catching cold. Director Elena Araoz has done a masterful job brimming with creativity, wonder, and pith.The artist is as accomplished with character as she is with visuals and pacing.
Fight Direction is painfully real (UnkleDave’s Fight-House). Accents are not only pristine, but all of a type. (Dialect Coach-Blake Segal) Ari Fulton’s Costumes make one want to bathe.Samantha Shoffner’s Props and Blood Effects are cringe-worthy. Scenic Design by Arnulfo Maldonado manages to be both minimal and redolent. Use of a steep stairway far from the pit (providing view) and doors behind which the Alligator (and band) lives are very effective. Amith Chandrashaker’s Lighting haunts.
Don’t miss this extraordinary production.
Photos by Heather Phelps
Opening: Bobby Moreno, Lindsay Rico
New Georges presents
Alligator by Hilary Bettis
Directed by Elena Araoz
Original Music by Daniel Ocanto, Graham Ulicny, Sean Smith
ART NY Theaters 502 West 53rd Street
Through December 18, 2016
Sunday afternoon I took a mini-vacation with Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano- well, me and the rest of the audience at Birdland. Like genial tour guides, the couple lead us out of the oven, into the country, and onto the shore; away from traffic, the news, and personal troubles…Three songs in, with “Gone Fishin” (Nick Kenny/ Charles Kenny), it’s all in a rearview mirror. Cows need milkin’ in the barn/ But you just don’t give a – darn. Too true.
These two love the season in which they had their first date and married. I’m susceptible, Fasano sings, I shouldn’t be allowed out at night…she swivels to face Comstock, with anyone like you…longlined notes arc and sigh. (“Incurably Romantic”-James Van Heusen) Hide your heart from sight/Lock your dreams at night/It could happen to you…Comstock affectionately responds to the rhythm of a measured cha-cha. (“It Could Happen to You”-Sammy Cahn/Johnny Burke.) They play off each other with the illusive ease of a practiced trapeze act.
An unusual pairing of Vivian Ellis’s “Wind in the Willows” and Sting’s “Fields of Gold” create a story as do “Witchcraft” (Carolyn Leigh/Cy Coleman) and “How Little We Know” (Phil Springer.) During the latter, Fasano steps gently side to side. In her hands, this is not just a love song, it’s a life lesson. Sean Smith’s bass acts as backbone, piano notes are clear, singular, yet symbiotic.
“The Shining Sea” arrives with such delicacy, it’s as if we’re watching footprints in the sand gradually disappear. When a seagull lyrically tips its wings, so, sad and pensive, does Fasano. Comstock strokes the keys. Smith leans out as if gaining perspective, then curls around his instrument like a backwards C. (Johnny Mandel/ Peggy Lee’s title song for The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming)
Fasano’s rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” is one of my favorite Comstock arrangements. Classical piano accompaniment and bowed bass support languid phrases as they melodically hitch rides on a summer breeze. Control is impeccable.
Comstock shares the male point of view of Francesca Blumenthal’s fine “The Lies of Handsome Men” through the author’s less performed “Fireflies:” They shine and shimmer, lead you on/But the light grows dimmer comes the dawn…’A lovely song eloquently rendered. The performer remains urbane, but reflective, cottony tone allows us to hear hurt beneath sophistication. This is a nuanced singer, an untrained natural. His “Come By Sunday” (Murray Grand) arrives spirited and sassy- can you call a man sassy? Part spoken throwaways, part sung, delivery is seriously hip- which can’t be taught.
Jim Lowe’s wry “The Hamptons” There’s an awful lot of here here/But never for the square here… is sultry, flirty, flip.
We’ve experienced the best part of being away without waiting in an airport line or getting stuck in traffic. Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano exude mutual respect and warmth: a pat on the hip here, a pursed- lips-kiss across the piano there, the shared piano bench. “It’s not as if we’re competitive about breath control,” she quips having counted off the last note of Billy Strayhorn’s sashaying “You’re The One” on her fingers at the end of a duet. Our audience leaves refreshed, awash in infectious good spirits.
Opening photo Jeff Fasano
Second photo by Gianni Valenti
July 17, 2016
Birdland 315 West 44th Street
Venue Calendar https://www.birdlandjazz.com/