In his recent two-night return engagement, this time at The Duplex, the amiable Jim Speake once again gave himself the prodigious task of presenting the music of Cy Coleman, one of the most prolific and challenging composers of Broadway and jazz music. Although Speake was a little tentative and stiff in his opening number, a combination of “Hey, Look Me Over!” (lyrics, Caroline Leigh) and “Hey There, Good Times” (Michael Stewart), within a few minutes, he was sailing along, and he ultimately won me over with his charm and clear focus on conveying the lyrics of the songs.
A bit buttoned-up in his tux and bow tie, Speake seemed too studied in the beginning; however, an early mistake—starting to speak when he had a another song to do at that point—helped him laugh at himself and enjoy some unrehearsed banter with musical director-pianist Steven Ray Watkins, demonstrating that a well-timed mistake and recovery can help both the singer and the audience breathe a little easier, allowing the performer to get on with the show in a more relaxed manner.
“Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like” (Comden & Green) was a nice fit for Speake’s genial nature and easygoing vocal style. “The Colors of My Life” (Michael Stewart) was a wistful look back at a well-lived life, and by the time Speake sang the words, “And should this sunlit world grow dark one day, the colors of my life will leave a shining light to show the way,” his simple, honest delivery brought a lump to the throat. With a few corny jokes thrown in between the verses, “Thank God I’m Old” (Michael Stewart) was quite amusing.
Speake’s pleasing voice might not be the kind most would associate with some of Coleman’s brassy, showstopping numbers, but his ability to effectively use what he’s got (to paraphrase one of the song titles) helped us hear them in a new way. This was especially evident on a pairing of “I’m a Brass Band” (Dorothy Fields) and “Come Follow the Band” (Michael Stewart), in which Speake—at one point blowing a whistle—was like the happy marcher at the front of a parade. At the end of the show, “It’s Not Where You Start” (Dorothy Fields) put a nice cherry on top of the sundae he’d created.
Speake’s patter was delightful. His persona is kind of like Mister Rogers with an easy southern drawl. The gee-whiz nature of his delivery is especially fun on some of his saucier comments. Trying to find something in common with his Bronx-born idol, the one-time Alabama farm boy said, “Back home, keeping your calves together has an entirely different meaning.” Or, referring to three Coleman musicals that feature prostitutes as main characters, he commented after a song, “Let’s get back to those hookers!”
While Watkins, a pianist who excels at pop, rock, and R&B arrangements, may not be the first person I would have thought of for the Coleman material—someone with more nuanced jazz chops might have come to mind—he delivered the goods in a straightforward and energetic fashion, joined by Donna Kelly on drums and Dan Fabricatore on bass. Director Lennie Watts made effective use of Speake’s best assets.
And while we’ve heard bigger and bolder versions of some of these songs, Jim Speake’s heart is clearly in the right place and we came to appreciate the songs in his more understated style. And that is the point of cabaret—bigger isn’t always better.
“I’m a Brass Band: Jim Speake Sings Cy Coleman”
The Duplex – October 11, 19
About the Author
Kevin Scott Hall performed in cabaret clubs for many years and recorded three CDs, including “New Light Dawning” in 1998, which received national airplay. He also worked at the legendary piano bar, Rose’s Turn, and has taught cabaret workshops and directed shows since 1995. Kevin earned his MFA in Creative Writing at City College of New York. He is an adjunct professor in the Theatre and English departments at City College and Borough of Manhattan Community College. His novel, “Off the Charts!” was published in 2010, and his memoir, “A Quarter Inch from My Heart” (Wisdom Moon), in 2014. Kevin writes a monthly column and entertainment features for Edge Media Network, writes reviews for BistroAwards.com, and freelances for other publications.