Gray Matter at Town Hall
Also see David's review of The Spitfire Grill
Richard Gray is a much sung, yet oddly unsung hero of the Seattle musical theatre scene. Best known for his wicked and witty parodies (ala Forbidden Broadway) and special material in the holiday perennial hit Forbidden Xmas, he has also written such smaller scale musicals as The Donk Sisters, LittleRock, The Mom & Pop Show and Time Again in Oz. Selections from these shows and from his intriguing workshop version of Norman Lear's film comedy Cold Turkey comprise the musical bill of fare in Gray Matter, a revue of the songwriter's canon. It is performed by three gifted Seattle actress/singers with Gray himself providing the male vocals and piano accompaniment.
Gray, affectionately known as Rich, kicks off the intermissionless 90-minute show with "Stuck in Your Craw," an engaging ditty which illustrates how his hummable tunes stick with you. As a composer, he is much closer to Herman or Irving Berlin (with perhaps a little Fats Waller thrown in) than say Stephen Sondheim or Jason Robert Brown, while his lyrics lean towards Fred Ebb, with a dash of Craig Carnelia on his ballads. This is to say that the man writes funny and emotional songs with equal dexterity, and as with many of the American musical theatre's finest, writes much of his richest (no pun intended) material for the ladies.
Beth DeVries is a sumptuous soprano with a wide vocal and emotional range. She is gamely comic on a hilarious mock musical number for a version of The Three Sisters ("Moscow Train") and is most impressively showcased on a ravishing ballad called "Beginnings," which she would have introduced in the original production of Time Again in Oz, if it hadn't been cut. She and Gray also team for the tender duet "In Her Eyes," the Forbidden Xmas heart-tugger which reminds us that children should be allowed holiday wonder and fantasies in this cynical age.
The soulful Cynthia Jones, away from musical theatre roles for awhile, delivers a searing rendition of "Not Every Child," which details a social worker's dismay at the lack of involvement she has in her clients' lives, and reprises a rousing anthem, "Keep The Dream Alive," which she introduced in Little Rock.
Lisa Koch has never introduced a Gray number or had one especially written for her, but this mega-talented lady delivers the outstanding performance of the evening with a subtly spine-tingling rendition of a brilliant new Gray ballad, "Scream," from the in-development Cold Turkey musical. This portrait of a repressed baby boomer era woman reaching an emotional crossroads is quite simply one of the finest musical theatre songs I have heard in the last decade, maybe two, and Koch knocks it out of the ballpark.
Gray himself excels as a performer embracing his wicked parodies, and he and the ladies take hilarious potshots at several Seattle theatres' pandering holiday shows, faded-celebrity star casting, and overdone titles. He admits proudly with tongue in cheek that he has played songwriter for hire and includes endearingly awful excerpts from tunes he penned for a Boeing Employees Credit Union industrial and a Seattle Emmy awards ceremony. But he can also turn on the tenderness, as he does with a charmer called "Good, Better, Best," a tune he wrote as a gift for his father (who sat proudly beaming at his son at the performance I attended).
The show is about the songs, so it is minimally staged, but none the worse for it. Half the fun for me was watching the ladies enjoying each other and Gray when they in the spotlight themselves, and the easy banter among the foursome. The Town Hall cabaret space, newly opened, seemed acoustically friendly with a nice balance between the singers, Gray, and his accomplished bass and percussion players. The mandatory food charge of $25 on top of a $25 show ticket fee may seem a bit high by Seattle standards, especially given the skimpy portions of food offered (subject to change I hear), but I wouldn't let this shortcoming keep you away from Gray Matter. Material and performers like this are feast enough!
Gray Matter continues July 18-20 at Town Hall located at Eighth Avenue and Seneca Street in downtown Seattle. Tickets & info at 206.325.6500 or visit www.ticketwindowonline.com.