“This Time Tomorrow”
Metropolitan Room – September 10, 12
Before making this Metropolitan Room return engagement, Joelle Lurie played a principal role in Jerry Springer: The Opera at Boston’s SpeakEasy Stage Company, so I assumed that she would have a good voice. She certainly does: from a gutsy alto to a lovely, limpid mezzo. She has studied both jazz voice and opera, so I thought it likely she would have commendable vocal technique. Right again. What’s more, her interpretation of Sondheim’s “So Many People” is all one could wish for—intelligent, sensitive, warm, and very sweet on the ears. The fact that it is so good is the chief reason I chose to write this review.
You see, she doesn’t display this wonderfulness until she gets to the Sondheim, which is her encore. With only a few exceptions, her interpretations along the way are problematic. (Most notable among the exceptions is her appealing rendition of Hans Lang and Bert Reisfeld’s savvily quirky “It’s Oh So Quiet.” Further, her rendition of Christine McVie’s “Songbird” is very pretty, and her performance of Jeffrey Moss’s “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon” is almost there.) Because I assume she is serious about performing in cabarets and clubs and not only in theatre, I’ll expound on this in some detail.
The show has three numbers by the Gershwins. In “I Was Doing All Right” Lurie speaks the line “Till you came by,” which doesn’t add meaning or depth—it’s just peculiar. She smiles throughout “Someone to Watch Over Me,” but basically remains emotionless; a version without warmth or a sense of longing could conceivably work, but she doesn’t give the impression that this was a conscious choice. In addition, the bouncy instrumentation trivializes the song, and the occasional vocal swoops add nothing of value. A jazzy arrangement of “Love Is Here to Stay” has no inner joy, just up-ness.
Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” is too big and, though slower than the Gershwin songs, too fast; it is devoid of feeling. “Cole Porter’s “I’ve Still Got My Health” is very fast, which is not inappropriate for this number, but performed without charm or any indication that the lyrics mean something to her. In Porter’s “You’re the Top,” she repeatedly inserts the word “well” (for example, “well, you’re Mahatma Gandhi”). Did she learn the song incorrectly, or does she think this is what stylization means? Similarly, In Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “It Might As Well Be Spring,” each time she sings the line “Or a robin on the wing,” she adds “or a bluebird” (“or a robin or a bluebird on the wing”); this avian excess is very silly.
“A Completely Different Place” (Benj Pasek, Chris Cooley) gets big at one point for no reason, and Nick Hallett’s “On the Run” is all big, also for no reason—the lyric deserves a more contoured interpretation. With “Day Too Soon” (Sia Kate Furler, Samuel R. Dixon) one has to clear a path through the “vocalizing,” rhythmic body movement, gestures, and too-heavy beat to get to the lyric. Speaking of beat, the tom-tom sound on the drums is an unwelcome accompaniment on “So Many People.” Finally, instead of coming to a purposeful end, several of the numbers merely stop.
For the record, the musical director is Matt Van Brink, who accompanies on piano, joined by Bob Bowen on bass, Conor Meehan on drums, and for a few selections, Claire Bryant on cello. Amy Rogers directed.
Early in the show, she says, referring to Gershwin songs, “If you go to cabaret, you have to accept cheese. But it’s good cheese.” Then before her first Cole Porter selection, she asks, “Ready for more cheese?” [Quotes approximate, but damned close to verbatim.] That is an abominable thing to say about this great material. Is she apologizing to the (mainly young) audience for whom this music is, what?, old-fashioned? unfamiliar? If an apology is in order, it should be made to Gershwin and Porter for not doing their songs justice. But I suspect that these statements are simply dreadfully misguided attempts to be flip. And given her fine rendition of “So Many People,” I believe that she does admire and respect the standards; she just doesn’t know how to interpret them—and she’s not gotten much help.
If she is serious about performing in cabarets or clubs, and not only in theatre, I urge her to consider the points I’ve made. I also urge her to work with someone who can assist her to explore each song and develop a carefully considered interpretation. That role could be filled by a director, vocal coach, or musical director, depending on the individual practitioner’s strengths. For example, some directors are expert at helping singers shape their shows, but give short shrift to the more critical art of song interpretation; that will do her little good. And she should choose a musical director who is sensitive to what interpretation implies. Any singer talented enough to do such a splendid job on “So Many People” owes it to herself to invest in that talent.
And even if her primary interest were theatre, she should still try to develop her cabaret artistry. I believe that this will, perforce, translate to greater theatrical ability, for I firmly believe that cabaret is a more challenging art form than theatre (see below).
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Cabaret vs. theatre
Writing on this issue twelve years ago, I had the following to say:
From one particular—but critical—perspective, singing a song in cabaret is far more difficult than doing it in a theatre piece. By the time a song makes its appearance in a book musical, the audience typically has a lot of information, including the events that preceded it, the nature of the character singing the song, and the emotional/psychological journey he or she has been on. All of this supplies a wealth of subtext. The singer-actor can get away with simply singing the song “professionally”—such a performance might not be illuminating, but the other elements of the show provide pretty big coattails.
In cabaret, however, artists have nothing to ride on. They come on stage tabula rasa. Whatever texture or subtext a song is to have is their responsibility. In their interpretations, they must find hidden depths, explore nuances, uncover and communicate layers of meaning. (Patter can help—even a single line can focus the audience’s receptivity in the right direction.) As I’ve said before, in cabaret, singing a song well enough isn’t good enough. How many times have I seen artists whose theatre work I respect be less persuasive in cabaret because of this factor. I’m convinced that if these performers were to develop their cabaret artistry, their theatrical work would be even stronger.
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 BistroAwards.com, he is also the site’s Reviews Editor; in addition, he is Chairman of the Advisory Board of MAC.