Regional Reviews: New Jersey
If I Were a Bell :
As the final event in its 2003-04 Cabaret season, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark played host to Andrea Marcovicci performing her show If I Were a Bell: The Songs of Frank Loesser.
Marcovicci is at once the best prepared and most spontaneous performer on the cabaret stage. Preceding her composer shows, she does extensive research into both the lives and output of her subjects, including contacts with their intimates and chroniclers in order to deliver fresh insights into their lives and songs.
Drawing on her extensive preparation, Marcovicci varies details of each performance with graceful ease, providing a strong sense of spontaneity. She convinces us that she is filled with delight in recalling and sharing her stories with us. Surely, her acting skills make a major contribution to her presentation. After all, Marcovicci is a strong advocate of having cabaret recognized as an art form. Artistry and artifice are integral to performance. However, for the 80 minutes that she appears on stage, it is impossible not to believe that you are lucky to have found the company of someone who takes delight in sharing her songs and stories.
While Marcovicci appears to catch herself off guard throughout, she artfully keeps us in a similar position. We never know if or when she is going to punctuate her songs with stories about Loesser, stories about herself, or with a witty examination of her lyrics. Although her warmth and sweet charm are central to her performance, she can surprise with a swift, acerbic comment. At one point, she presents a series of Loesser's World War II songs, but then quickly upsets the anticipation that she has moved into a chronological musical presentation. This also allows her to surprise us with the wide range of styles in which Loesser wrote. She comes down from the stage and adroitly works the room, adding an additional sense of intimacy to the occasion.
Her distinctive, intimate singing style combines with her, and I don't say this lightly, unmatched interpretation of lyrics to create a painterly miniature work of art with each song.
A short sampling of some of the best known songs that Marcovicci sings here: "Two Sleepy People," "Heart and Soul," "I Don't Want to Walk Without You," and "Slow Boat to China." His theatre songs, which are not numerous in this program, are highlighted by a trio from Guys and Dolls: "I'll Know," "More I Cannot Wish You" and "If I Were a Bell." The latter provides the evening's title.
Movie songs written in the early 40s include an upbeat novelty song comically interpreting "Hamlet" which was written for Betty Hutton, and the still risqué (as sung by Marcovicci) "Love Isn't Born, It's Made" which was introduced on the silver screen by Ann Sheridan.
There was nothing particularly dramatic or exotic about Frank Loesser's life. Actually, the story of his first wife and creative business partner, Lynn Loesser, is the one filled with drama, and it is related in part by Marcovicci.
Marcovicci is not beyond giving a fact a little alteration for dramatic effect. In seeking a superlative with which to clothe her subject, she describes Loesser as the "most colloquially American" lyricist. That distinction clearly belongs to Johnny Mercer.
Marcovicci effectively weaves the biographical facts around a series of amusing anecdotes largely provided by Loesser's children (there is a biography, A Most Remarkable Fella by daughter Susan Loesser) and widow Jo Sullivan. Born into a musically cultured German-Jewish family from New York's Upper West Side (his father was a classical pianist and piano teacher), Loesser eschewed highbrow music and formal music lessons. Self trained as a musician, he was able to secure himself a place in the popular music field.
From the early 1930s until the end of World War II, Loesser functioned as lyricist to a remarkable roster of composers including Jule Styne, Arthur Schwartz, Jimmy McHugh and Hoagy Carmichael. Although he had written music and lyrics earlier ("Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" was the first big hit for which he provided both), it was only after the war that he became a full time composer-lyricist. Shortly thereafter, he began to direct his efforts towards the Broadway stage, displaying his genius and eclecticism in such classics as Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Marcovicci is attractively attired in black (with white accents) organza with crinolines. The dress has a high neckline with a decorated bodice, and a cocktail length flared skirt.
Andrea Marcovicci closes her Frank Loesser evening in grand style with the Academy Award winning classic "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Musical Director-pianist and occasional backup vocalist Shelly Markham duets with her, but in a clever twist (a la Betty Garrett and Red Skelton, who added their version to the rendition by Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban in the movie Neptune's Daughter), Marcovicci sings the traditional male lyric, gently mocking macho attitude. Furthermore, her sharp clipped jazzy phrasings make the old tune swing.
NJPAC's Cabaret Series is a valuable addition to the New Jersey arts calendar.
The Chase Cabaret Room at NJPAC may well be the loveliest spot in Newark. Converted from a rehearsal space, it is a comfortabley elegant, intimate and lushly appointed room. It has been decked out with a superlative sound system which richly and inobtrusively amplifies every nuance in the words and music. When the elegant drapes at the rear of the stage are removed, an enormous window with a city skyline is revealed. Drapes or skyline, there is a sense of luxury present.
If you choose to dress up, you will be quite comfortable in such surroundings. However, for many, "dress casual" is comfortable and convenient. You may dress so appropriately here, and allow the room itself to provide you with the feeling of elegant wellbeing. There is a very reasonable admission charge (cabaret subscriptions are available at less than the single ticket price). Drinks are available, but there is no "minimum."
If I Were a Bell: The Songs of Frank Loesser was presented on May 23, 2004 at 5:30 & 8:00 PM at the Chase Room at New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC), One Center Street, Newark, NJ 07102; Box Office: 888-466-5722; online www.njpac.org
If I Were a Bell: The Songs of Frank Loesser performed by Andrea Marcovicci; accompanied by Shelly Markham (Musical Director, piano) and Jared Egan (bass)