Frank Dain

September 26, 2012

“The Magic of Mathis”

Metropolitan Room – September 8, 21, 28

Though in recent years he could be found from time to time as a guest vocalist in various spots around town, this engagement marks Frank Dain’s first solo show in thirteen years. His return has been eagerly anticipated—and judging by the packed house at the Metropolitan Room, not just by me but by scores of people.

For the occasion, Dain has chosen to pay tribute to Johnny Mathis. Directed by Lennie Watts, and with accompaniment by musical director Kathleen Landis on piano and Saadi Zain on bass, the show is called “The Magic of Mathis.” Mathis’s magic lies mainly in his voice—that singular, unforgettable, almost-other-wordly, hauntingly beautiful sound. While Mathis respects lyrics, his greatness stems not from a penetrating exploration of the words, but from the eloquence of what he does with the music. Though Dain’s voice is occasionally evocative of Mathis’s, in no way does he attempt impersonation. Nor does he adopt Mathis’s approach; rather, he adheres to the cabaret, rather than the pop aesthetic and pays particular emphasis on the meaning of the lyric.

Dain’s approach is especially effective on the program’s more obscure material, songs that Mathis has sung but that are not indelibly associated with him in all of our minds. There are three reasons this choice works so well in these instances: (1) done well, lyric exploration generally provides a richer experience; (2) these songs warrant this approach; and (3) the memory of Mathis’s renditions does not get in the way of our appreciation of what Dain is doing. Michael Moore’s “Yellow Roses on Her Gown” is a lovely song about remembering happier times, and Dain’s heartfelt performance is unadorned and touching. He does a fine job with Tracy Mann and Dory Caymmi’s rueful “Photograph,” and he delivers a dramatic interpretation of Hal David and Albert Hammond’s “99 Miles from L.A.”—though he needs to be careful about indicating emotions too obviously through facial expression. And his simple declaration of love-readiness in Bart Howard’s “I’ll Be Easy to Find” is very appealing.

The results with Mathis’s greatest hits are more uneven. “Chances Are” (Al Stillman, Robert Allen) is performed more snappily than Mathis does, which deprives the song of its romance; more’s the pity, for the song follows immediately Dain’s assertion that Mathis is “the premier balladeer of all times.” At the other end of the tempo spectrum, Stillman and Allen’s “It’s Not for Me to Say” is done slower and more deliberately, which undermines the music’s lushness; if this were picked up a bit, we’d have both the attractiveness of the music and the insight of Dain’s reading—as we do with his wonderful interpretation of Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster’s “A Certain Smile.” Landis and Zain have devised a brooding, passionate arrangement for “Wild Is the Wind” (Ned Washington, Dimitri Tiomkin), and Dain tries to match the drama in his vocal rendition; however, he doesn’t—or, perhaps, doesn’t yet—get there. But he does a sweet, sweet job on Jerry Livingston and Paul Francis Webster’s “The Twelfth of Never.” (I should mention that most of the arrangements are by Landis and Dain.)

There are a few other things that should be worked on. On “Let Go (Canto De Ossanha)” by Baden Powell and Vinicius DeMoraes, with English lyrics by Norman Gimbel, Dain does a fair job of conveying the struggle between the opposing forces of holding back and letting go, but he’s not quite convincing. With “The Island” (Ivan Lins and Vitor Martins, English lyrics by the Bergmans), he needs to be steamier, more internally sensual. And in Sherman Edwards and Ben Raleigh’s “Wonderful! Wonderful!” the bridge suddenly switches to a rolling rhythm, which is at odds with the romantic sensibility of the rest of the arrangement and throws the mood off. But this is a new show and I saw only its second outing, so…


About the Author

Roy Sander has been covering cabaret and theatre for over thirty years. He’s written cabaret and theatre reviews, features, and commentary for seven print publications, most notably Back Stage, and for CitySearch on the Internet. He covered cabaret monthly on “New York Theatre Review” on PBS TV, and cabaret and theatre weekly on WLIM-FM radio. He was twice a guest instructor at the London School of Musical Theatre. A critic for, he is also the site’s Reviews Editor; in addition, he is Chairman of the Advisory Board of MAC.