Café Carlyle – March 19-30
“I’ll be a devil till I’m an angel,” Debby Boone sings in “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die” (Al Hoffman, Walter Kent, Manny Curtis), her opening number at the Café Carlyle. Did Boone choose this particular song so that she could ruffle her public image a bit? After all, she’s that nice girl who won Grammy Awards singing Christian music. She’s Pat Boone’s daughter, for crying out loud. What could possibly be diabolical about her? Does she swipe the last Crescent Roll from the breadbasket at family picnics? Yet there she is, full of sass—sporting a slinky black dress showing plenty of bare shoulder. Glimmering teardrop earrings offset a feathery hairstyle reminiscent of Joey Heatherton in her 1960s talk-show heyday. Boone’s arms wave in snaky, sinuous fashion as she sings. “Before my number’s up I’m gonna fill my cup,” she asserts. She doesn’t seem to be referring to Nestlé’s Quik.
Early in her show, “Swing This,” Boone announces its theme. She’ll draw on her memories of 1960s Las Vegas, as one of four young daughters of a headliner at the Sahara and the Sands hotels who happened to be the perfect square. She describes—succinctly yet vividly—a devoutly religious family traipsing through a casino, assaulted by flashing lights and the sounds of clinking highball glasses and clanging slot machines. Only it turns out little Debby wasn’t intimidated by Las Vegas. She was entranced.
Boone seems to be a born raconteuse. She uses spare but very rich between-song patter to bring her memories to life. She recalls early experiences with legendary Rat Packers, including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. She relates intimate details of a guided tour of Davis’s house and retells onstage jokes that barfly Martin would make about her teetotaler dad. She remembers accompanying her father to the golf course and getting a driving lesson on his golf cart one day—only to have Barbra Streisand pop up out of the blue and invite them for an impromptu visit beside the swimming pool of her nearby rental home. You may be relieved you didn’t live through Boone’s unusual childhood, but you relish hearing her conjure it up all these years later.
The songs in the program appear carefully chosen to give a sense both of the flashy glamour of vintage Vegas and of the sober and occasionally harsh reality buried beneath the sequins. The first half of the show is a little heavy on snazzy up-tempo numbers in which Boone gets to play sex kitten. Pablo Beltran Ruiz and Norman Gimbel’s “Sway,” Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “That Old Black Magic,” and Lee Hazlewood’s “These Boots Are Made for Walking” are all in the same basic vein as Boone’s opener. I won’t say that her flirty-girl approach grows monotonous, but I was glad to get more musical diversity and depth in the latter part of the show.
As the evening progresses, Boone offers a tender rendition of “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime” (Sam Coslow, Ken Lane, Irving Taylor), in tribute to Dean Martin. Her care with the lyrics here is admirable. Her Barbra-and-the-golf-cart anecdote gives way to Arthur Hamilton’s torchy “Cry Me a River,” although Boone’s gently mocking approach probably has more in common with Julie London’s purring rendition than with Streisand’s wailing revenge rampage.
“Mack the Knife” (Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, Marc Blitzstein) is given a raucous Latin-beat treatment. In Nevada showrooms during the mid-20th century, “Mack” traveled far and wide from its original hurdy-gurdy sound. Here Boone all but pulls the audience onstage and into a conga line. But while, on one level, the arrangement kids the sensibility that anything goes in Vegas no matter how nutty, the number still manages to hang together in a satisfying, fun way.
The highlight of the show for me was the stylish, emotionally resonant version of “‘Round Midnight” (Bernie Hanighen, Thelonious Monk, Cootie Williams). The sumptuous-sounding nine-piece band led by pianist/musical director/arranger John Oddo was at its wonderful best here. The confident-voiced Boone strikes elegant yet sensual poses during the number, suggesting John Singer Sargent’s Madame X. She sings much of “Midnight” turned in profile, avoiding the gaze of the audience. She steps alongside the piano, gripping it as if for support. As the lonely despair of her persona grows, the singer turns her back fully on her listeners during an angry instrumental break, unable to bear up. (Dad never emoted quite like this back in State Fair.)
The pre-encore finale, Dietz and Schwartz’s “You and the Night and the Music,” sums up Boone’s musical-memories theme. And then, on opening night, came a sweet coda, in which Boone sang Irving Berlin’s yearning “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” accompanied only by surprise guest Bucky Pizzarelli on guitar. This selection showed yet another facet of a gifted and under-esteemed performer who seems to have reinvented herself in cabaret in a fashion not unlike that of her late mother-in-law, Rosemary Clooney.
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.