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Chicago by John Olson

An Evening with Christine Ebersole
Harris Theater for Music and Dance

Also see John's reviews of Beauty and the Beast and A True History of the Johnstown Flood

Christine Ebersole
Christine Ebersole
We may have been physically inside a 21st century theater seating 1,525, but mentally and musically, Christine Ebersole's concert—apparently a transfer of the cabaret show she performed at New York's Carlyle Café in February—took us to a swank Manhattan nightclub just before the middle of the twentieth century. Accompanied by a smooth four-piece band of piano, bass, drums and reeds led by John Oddo, Miss Ebersole treated the audience to mostly lesser-known songs by Great American Songbook writers. Though she didn't make a point of it, the songs paid particular tribute to the great lyricists of the era, featuring lyric-heavy songs by Oscar Hammerstein, Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, Noel Coward and Ogden Nash. After a prelude of "Hawaiian War Chant" evoked the big band era, Ebersole entered, appearing gratefully awed by the size of the near-sellout house, and jumped into a jazzy reading of "Too Darn Hot." That tune from Porter's 1948 Kiss Me, Kate was just about the newest song of the night (with the exception of "I'll Take Chicago Any Time," a pastiche reply to Rodgers & Hart's "Manhattan," written by Chicagoan Susan Werner).

Ebersole's repertoire was a great showcase for her skills as singer and comedienne. Her sure timing and crystal-clear diction together with the ability to use whatever vocal style is needed to support each moment of a lyric were on full display in delivering the laughs as well as the notes in three obscure comedy numbers from the 1930s. The first of the three was Rodgers & Hart's satirical jibe at New York, "Give It Back to the Indians" from 1939 Too Many Girls. She preceded each song with a bit of patter, and after expressing nostalgia for the days when a politician's scandalous affairs were kept private, she crooned "I'm In Love with the Honorable Mr. So and So," originally sung by Virginia Bruce in a 1939 film called Society Lawyer. "A Love Song from a Porter to a Chambermaid," a swing-era ditty in which she promised "I will be your dustpan if you will be my broom," was the third of the comedy numbers in which the clever lyrics were showcased so well. Sharing anxiety about the inevitable growing up and leaving home of her children, she imagined an empty-nest life with her husband in "The Folks Who Live on the Hill," a heartfelt Kern-Hammerstein ballad from a 1937 film. The Gershwins' ballad "I've Got a Crush on You," popularized by Peggy Lee, followed, just before she closed the first set with a smoky and sultry rendition of "42nd Street."

Lights were turned way down for the second set, and returning to the stage in a black sequined gown, Miss Ebersole began the mostly jazzy set with "Fascinatin' Rhythm." In the first of two songs dedicated to her husband, she promised to give all her possessions to her him in Rodgers & Hart's 1931 "I've Got Five Dollars." Her husband was saluted as inspiring a variety of feelings—including the "way you feel when there is autumn is in the air" and "the way you feel when Antoine is finished with your hair" in the upbeat "That's Him," a song from 1943's One Touch of Venus by Kurt Weill and the humorist poet Ogden Nash. "The Sunny Side of the Street" and Eartha Kitt's "Mink Schmink" raised the energy level. After noting her own connections to Chicago (she was born in the suburb of Winnetka, an Indian name she said meant "Rich White People"), she saluted the local audience with the previously mentioned "I'll Take Chicago Any Time." In closing, she promised to return, with Noel Coward's "I'll See You Again."

Having missed Ebersole's Tony-winning performance in Grey Gardens (her able understudy stepped in at the performance I attended), I was hoping to hear one or two of her numbers from the show to ease my disappointment. No such luck, though she did step into character as Little Edie twice during her patter. Though this concert directed by Scott Wittman went somewhere else—celebrating the era of big bands, literate songs and the "swelligant" night clubs where they were heard—it was a clear demonstration of the vocal range and comic acting ability that has made Christine Ebersole so acclaimed on the musical stage. Now I think I'm more disappointed about missing her in Grey Gardens, not less.

An Evening with Christine Ebersole was presented at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance on March 24, 2010.

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-- John Olson



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