“Amy Beth Williams Sings Leiber & Stoller”
As with most singers enduring and then coming out of the pandemic with its quarantines and lockdowns, Amy Beth Williams spent a lot of time exploring, discovering, and re-discovering songs and songwriters and putting together future shows. That exploration led her to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller—not only to their iconic hits, but to their rare and mostly unsung (in all senses of the word) “special material” that was, whether intentionally or unintentionally, made for cabaret and the intimate storytelling it affords. This was the genesis of her new show which debuted recently at Don’t Tell Mama.
Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller are giants of American music. They’re numerous hits for the likes of Elvis Presley, Peggy Lee, The Coasters, The Drifters, Big Mama Thornton, and hundreds of others are well-known. In their later years they concentrated on edgier, darker, more daring pieces both lyrically and musically for the likes of Peggy Lee and Carmen McRae. Williams is an excellent singer with a fine voice and a personal connection to lyrics and storytelling. It is interesting that the best moments of the evening are the most recognizable songs. Her versions of “Stand by Me” and “Spanish Harlem” (written with Phil Spector) stand out as she recalls the hit records while injecting her own interpretations. A few of the new songs are high points as well. The paean to growing older and surviving, “Ready to Begin Again,” offers a portrait that is both humorous and moving. She revels in the unabashed “fan-girldom” of “Humphrey Bogart,” seemingly unable to contain her lust for the movie star. And she has a field day with the witty, Sondheim-esque word play of “I’ve Got Them Feelin’ Too Good Today Blues.”
The success of those moments causes consternation at how much of the rest of the show consists of mismatches and missed opportunities. An answer of sorts is offered by her revelation that the album that piqued her interest in the first place was Other Songs by Leiber and Stoller by William Bolcom and Joan Morris. Bolcom and Morris recorded a series of albums celebrating “early” American music from the turn of the last century to the mid-1900s. As a source for songs and as historical documents they are invaluable. Bolcom and Morris came from the world of classical music and approached the pop material as art songs, which manifested in intellectual, musically and lyrically accurate, but emotionally arid interpretations.
That bloodless approach too often carries over on to the stage at Don’t Tell Mama with darkness unexplored, biting humor untapped, razor-edge emotions blunted, and passion unexpressed. Williams is certainly capable of these elements but she and her director, Tanya Moberly, fail again and again to mine the rich material their more adventurous choices offer. “I Ain’t Here,” stripped of attitude, even fails to deliver the line “…you can kiss my foot, my dear!” with any real feeling. A neutered “Hound Dog,” done with no reference to Big Mama Thornton or Elvis Presley, offers nothing in their stead but a karaoke interpretation. She sings the Peggy Lee quasi-hit, “Professor Hauptmann’s Performing Dogs” as if it were solely about a dog show, ignoring any political or social metaphor. “Longings for a Simpler Time” is presented merely as nostalgic reverie rather than as the bittersweet delusion it could and should have been. It is obvious what the songs offer Williams as a listener, but less clear what they offer her as a singer.
The musicians come close to saving the day. The songs are brilliantly arranged and played; there are cohesive musical themes threaded through the evening, resulting in what amounted to a thrilling Leiber and Stoller suite. Music director Ian Herman, guitarist Peter Calo, bassist Ritt Henn, and drummer Ray Marchica provide an impressive, sturdy framework for a Leiber & Stoller gallery, but it is inhabited by a curious visitor rather than a passionate curator who cares for its treasures and breathes its air. The song writers deserve better. Amy Beth Williams deserves better. The audience deserves better.
Presented at Don’t Tell Mama, 343 W. 46th St., NYC, November 6, 13, December 8, 12, 2023.
About the Author
Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”