Club Review: “Lisa Viggiano Sings the Jane Olivor Songbook”
After she was discovered (and signed to Columbia Records) at her very first cabaret show, Jane Olivor released five albums between 1976 and 1982 that endeared her to many, particularly in the gay community. As their superstar Barbra Streisand ascended to the stratosphere, Olivor took her place in many of their hearts. As the AIDS crisis grew, her songs took on greater depth and meaning as part of the healing and coping with the horrors surrounding gay life at the time. She had a knack for discovering (or re-discovering) songs and presenting them in an intensely personal fashion, sometimes bordering on parody as the melodrama went too far, but often touching hearts and souls deeply.
In her moving, intelligent, beautifully arranged and played show, Lisa Viggiano Sings the Jane Olivor Songbook, the Bistro Award-winning vocalist wisely chooses to concentrate on the songs themselves, rather than the artist, and to highlight the similarities between life and loss and separation from COVID with the plague that ravaged the world 40 years ago; she seeks to find the same solace and healing power in them. In her talented, capable hands, she succeeds admirably. The keen eye of director Mark Nadler and the fine playing of music director Yasuhiko Fukuoka (who both contributed to the terrific arrangements) give the singer the support and freedom to shine. She shares just enough information about Olivor and combines it with her own personal reminiscences about the singer she is honoring, and about her own life. The blend is magically seamless.
The show gets off to a somewhat shaky start with an arrangement of “Come in from the Rain” (Melissa Manchester, Carol Bayer Sager) that is much too fast to allow the singer to investigate its hopeful, loving message with any depth; she seems to be struggling to keep up with the tempo and get all the words out. I understand the impulse to find “non-ballad” tempos in the hits of Jane Olivor, but it should not be at the expense of the effectiveness of the song. Thankfully, she gets her footing back at once with a much less restrictive arrangement of a song Olivor wrote, under her real name Linda Cohen, along with Jason Darrow,“Let’s Make Some Memories.” It might have been wise to flip these two numbers and allow “Rain” to retain some of its original tempo.
It would take a singer with the power and feeling of Lisa Viggiano to make a Neil Diamond song palatable for this writer, and she does just that in a medley of “Brooklyn Roads” (Neil Diamond) with “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” (Harry Carroll [adapted from Frederic Chopin], Joseph McCarthy). Putting the blunt, propulsive rhythm and arrangement of the Diamond song up against the gentle, lilting “Rainbows” works beautifully, presenting the narrative (and biographical) clash of the cold, urban poetry of the former with the quiet, hopeful dreams of the latter. It’s a lovely showcase for Viggiano’s phrasing, emotional breadth, and natural delivery. The inevitable inclusion of Olivor’s signature song (the one that got her the recording contract), “Some Enchanted Evening” (Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II), is done in the same classic arrangement as the original, but even here her exquisite vocal and passionate storytelling deepen and improve on the somewhat cold calculation Oliver brought to her version. Some may think this is sacrilege, but there you have it.
The arrangement of “One More Ride on the Merry-Go-Round” (Neil Sedaka, Howard Greenfield) shows even more Brel influence than the original as Viggiano maintains her dramatic narrative control while giving in (and adding) to the ever more intensely swirling rhythms of the fiery arrangement. One of the finds of the show, at least for me, is the resurrection of “French Waltz” (Adam Mitchell), a luminous jewel that I suggest the singer include in every show she does from now on, regardless of theme. “He’s So Fine” (Ronnie Mack) is a perfect blend of patter, song, and storytelling as she endearingly recalls her fateful meeting with her husband. All that was missing was the audience sighing a collective sigh of “Awww” at the end. In the space of the one song, Viggiano provides more sweetness, humor, and romance than most full shows offer.
“The Last Time I Felt Like This” (Marvin Hamlisch, Alan & Marilyn Bergman) was originally a hit duet for Olivor and Johnny Mathis, but through the magic of cabaret, and her quite special talent, the singer turns it into a stunning contemplation of the love between mother and newborn that leaves few dry eyes in the house. Continuing the emotional onslaught, “The Hardest Part of Love” (Stephen Schwartz) follows that love as the son grows to manhood. It is sung with a connection that is so personal, so deep, and so palpable that the song might have been written for her. Another Sedaka/Greenfield song, “The Big Parade,” changes mood and shakes off the sad underpinnings of the previous song but its arrangement is, sadly, too similar to “Merry-Go-Round” to be totally successful. Other than the opening number, it is the one serious misstep in the show and in no way fatal. The playing and singing cannot be faulted but I wish they had chosen a different song or treatment.
The show climaxes with a brilliantly realized medley of “Song of Bernadette” (Leonard Cohen) and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (Bob Dylan) threaded together with Bach’s “Prelude in C Major.” The arsenals of arrangement, direction, and exquisite vocals at the show’s command come together in a powerhouse statement that is simply thrilling. After all that brilliance, she leaves the audience with a warm and wise “Better Days” (Melissa Manchester, Carol Bayer Sager) that sends them in to the night with a warm hug.
The patter could have been a bit tighter (and no doubt will be as the run of the show continues), and the word “healing” could have been used a little less often. Nadler’s direction, so astute throughout, on occasion might push the singer into a bit of overdone physicality or vocal intensity. Another singer might need a little extra push to externalize the emotions and story they are trying to convey, but Lisa Viggiano is not one of them. Her natural and extraordinary talent is there for anyone to witness and engage. This is a tribute, and a show, not to be missed.
Presented at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, 407 W. 42nd St., on Oct. 13, Nov. 11; additional performances on Nov. 27, Dec. 19, 2022, Jan. 19, 2023 at Don’t Tell Mama, 343 W. 46th St.
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?”