For her show Like a Perfumed Woman (directed by Lina Koutrakos), recently at Birdland Theater, Joanne Halev drew on her career experience in the world of “fragrance creation.” (For years, she traveled the globe in search of exotic and intoxicating scents.) She had fun with the “fragrance” motif, noting that songs and fragrances alike are composed of “notes.” And she suggested that auditory and olfactory functions can similarly serve to awaken sleeping memories.
Her vocals tend to be warm, rich and full—the notes in her lower register are especially appealing. Considering the show’s theme, it was appropriate that every aspect of her performance was controlled and nuanced. Her sounds were blended and balanced in a very pleasing way. Likewise, the spoken-word portions of her show seemed carefully considered—and polished with an editor’s expertise. She is a singer who seems consistently engaged with the words she is singing (or speaking), and this helps to makes her listeners willing to go wherever she takes them. If there is a down side to her approach, it’s that she may be a little too subtle sometimes—and maybe a bit too restrained. In both fragrance and song, muted can be good, but there are times when pungent seems just right. You don’t want to inhale hyacinth or Easter lily all the time but, once every spring or so, a good whiff can be bracing.
Halev opened the show with a portion of Frank Loesser’s “Joey, Joey, Joey,” with lyrics that introduced her show’s title. She then segued into “I Remember You” (Victor Schertzinger, Johnny Mercer), which introduced the idea of scent as memory inducer. Next up was a clever “Fragrance Facts Medley” in which song snippets illustrated the info she was presenting. For instance, the idea that fragrances (and songs) can be composed of few or many notes found perfect illustration with “One Note Samba” (Antonio Carlos Jobim, Newton Mendonça, Jon Hendricks).
The rest of the program had considerable variety, from John Bucchino’s Sondheim-alluding (and Sondheimish-sounding) “Playbill” to the Noël Coward–like comic number “Much More Married” (Dillie Keane), sung with a British accent and a plucky lilt. For Cole Porter’s “All of You,” percussionist Ari Axelrod came to the stage, joining musical director and pianist Alex Rybeck and bassist Ray Kilday, to create some rhythm-driven effects: perfect musical accents for Halev’s memories of her travels to the Middle East in search of deer-musk scents. The musicians’ work was stirring throughout the evening, and Rybeck’s arrangements were playful and smart.
In the show’s latter half, Halev turned things in a more personal direction. She spoke of meeting her husband (a cantor from South Africa), and she told anecdotes involving her daughters and other family members. For me, the highlight of the evening was her very emotional musical remembrance of her mother, in a mashup of “Embraceable You” (George and Ira Gershwin) and “Les Feuilles Mortes” / “Autumn Leaves” (Joseph Kosma, Jacques Prévert, Johnny Mercer). Both songs are usually sung in a romantic rather than a familial context. But the latter song’s lyric describing “the sunburned hands I used to hold” took on a different (and potent) sort of resonance when describing a relationship with an aged parent.
It’s pretty clear that Halev will never be a Merman-style belter. The excitement in her singing comes from a quieter source: from deep, distilled emotion. When she sang “Autumn Leaves,” there was a lift to her performance that brought everything up a notch. I hope she’ll look for more moments like that one to bring to future shows. And I sincerely hope there are plenty of future shows.
Like a Perfumed Woman
Birdland Theater – June 11, July 2
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.