Learning about your family history can be fascinating. But how often will strangers share your enthusiasm for stories about the lives of your parents and grandparents? Not especially often, I would guess. Claudine Cassan-Jellison beat the odds with “Just Visiting,” her new show at Don’t Tell Mama. The evening was built around the saga of her recent forebears, beginning with her maternal grandmother who, in 1912, while still a girl, traveled alone from her home in a small town in the French Alps to a new life in New York City. The singer went on to relate tales of her mother, maternal step-grandfather, and father.
“Just Visiting” worked beautifully in part because Cassan-Jellison is a gifted storyteller who infuses her anecdotes with sharp details, strong doses of humor, and apt turns of phrase. Her stories somehow invite listeners to reflect on their own heritages. At the end of the evening, she credited director Barry Kleinbort with helping her to weave the family tales into a coherent script.
Mastery of the raconteur’s art is just one of this performer’s gifts. She is also a singer with a warm, strong, flexible voice, a remarkable range, and a talent for finding just the right shadings and embellishments to make a song connect with her audience. Her pianist and musical director David Gaines, along with bassist Bill Ellison, accompanied her with sensitivity throughout the set.
Yet another plus in this show was strong song selection. Cassan-Jellison and her team located musical material—much of it in English but a good amount in French—that ingeniously fit her personal content. Although the lyrics of her opening number, Judy Collins’s “Secret Gardens,” mention “Seattle rain,” the singer adapted the number to her own purposes, interpolating a description of the old farmhouse in Queens where she came to know her grandmother (the “petite femme with henna-red hair”). Stephen Sondheim’s “Giants in the Sky” became a metaphor for the invigorating yet frightening new realities faced by immigrants. A rip-roaring song pairing of “Orange Colored Sky” (Milton De Lugg, Willie Stein) and “Boum!” (Charles Trenet) celebrated the love match between the singer’s American-born mother and French father.
Welcome comedic elements emerged in a couple of numbers. During Leonard Bernstein and Richard Wilbur’s “I Am Easily Assimilated” (from Candide), Cassan-Jellison—sporting an outrageous Castilian accent—clowned enthusiastically. Although great fun, the number also made a serious point about the drawbacks of too feverishly striving to fit into a new culture. Later, she sang an amusing version of Dietz and Schwartz’s “Dinner Is Served,” which tells of a stage actress with one key line to speak. The song accompanied an anecdote about Casssan-Jellison’s excursion to Paris to study at the Comédie Française, where she was dissed for her American accent and given only tiny roles to play.
At evening’s end, Cassan-Jellison sang a bit of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” before segueing into a stirring rendition of Paul Simon’s “An American Tune.” This capped the program with a warm glow of patriotism that was not in the least jingoistic. In a year in which issues concerning refugees and immigrants have been prominent in the headlines, this versatile performer gave a quiet but sturdy voice to the struggles and triumphs of those who set out for distant shores in an effort to arrive at home.
Don’t Tell Mama – May 26, June 4, 5
About the Author
Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for BistroAwards.com in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is currently literary manager for Broad Horizons Theatre Company.