Laurie Beechman Theatre – March 2, 9, 16
I’d bet that Kim Smith could sing the dictionary and turn it into a dramatic musical theatre piece, keeping the audience spellbound from aardvark straight through to zymurgy. To every song he brings a commitment and focus that are intense and hypnotic. His delivery, in a voice with no fuzzy edges, is enviably precise, and more often than not his interpretations will be different from any other you may have heard. Add to this his striking good looks that are almost improbably pretty and you’ve got a unique artist, unlike anyone else I know of in this country. Indeed, he’s an import from Australia—I guess we don’t grow ’em like that here.
He recently debuted “Misfit,” his first new show in some time; it was directed by Christian Coulson and has musical direction and piano accompaniment by Jerry Steichen. A stunning medley of three songs about the American South is a perfect example of what makes Smith so special. The medley begins with Peter Allen’s “Dixie,” which contrasts the romantic mythology of the South with a rather harsher reality. Then comes Lewis Allen’s “Strange Fruit,” about lynched black bodies hanging in trees. This eerily chilling song provides a new and extraordinarily trenchant frame of reference for what follows, “Summertime” (George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward, Ira Gershwin) from Porgy and Bess. It’s not just the commanding skill he brings to his performance that is worthy of our attention, but also the mind that conceived this grouping.
He takes the lyrics to “Physical” (Stephen Kipner, Terry Shaddick) at their face value, delivering a more seductive and overtly sexual interpretation than we got from Olivia Newton John. His rendition of Sonny Bono’s “Bang, Bang” becomes so dramatic that in the final chorus, the singer is not merely sad that his lover has left him; rather, it’s as though his lover had actually shot him and he was now singing from the grave. Dark stuff, but Smith favors dark—as in Björk Guðmundsdóttir’s “Bachelorette,” which is filled with bleak imagery, menace, and foreboding (in addition to a passel of diacritical marks). Not many other artists would open their show with that song, but Smith pulls it off. (Actually, he segues into “Bachelorette” from what is truly his first selection, “Guru” by Chester Biscardi and Allen Ginsberg; my note on that one, which I quote in its entirety, reads “short, but WTF?”)
He delivers uncommonly strong renditions of two staples, “Padam, Padam” (Norbert Glanzberg, Henri Contet) and Weill/Brecht’s “Pirate Jenny,” perhaps the greatest musical expression of bitterness and revenge ever written, although his ending of the latter song doesn’t live up to the rest of his interpretation. He also does a fine job—lighthearted at first, then growing in fervor—on Friedrich Hollaender’s wonderful “Münchhausen,” the cynical but not unrealistic song that you might recall from its chorus, “Li-ar, li-ar, liar, liar, liar, liar.”
While his song choices tend to be dark, the moments between musical numbers are another matter entirely. His patter—at times audacious, at times outrageous—is playful, funny, intelligent, and very Kim Smith. On opening night it rambled a bit and needed some sharpening…which takes me to a few other elements of this show that would benefit from remedial treatment—in some cases a small change, in others, perhaps rethinking.
Pairing Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin’s “My Ship” with Weill/Brecht’s “Surabaya Johnny,” Smith performs a severely truncated version of the former with no great interpretive depth, and follows it with an unimpeachable rendition of Johnny. There’s a one-line reference to “My Ship” at the very end, which is quite effective, but the up-front price is too high. If he began with a longer extract of “My Ship” and invested it with feeling, the concept could work.
There’s a not dissimilar problem with Hollaender’s “Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt” (the English version is “Falling in Love Again”) and Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh’s “It Amazes Me.” He sings just a little of the former, then its music is brought in to underscore the second song, with a one-line backward reference to the first song at the end. The point of the pairing is that the singer begins with a cavalier, unromantic attitude towards love, only to discover that he’s actually fallen. It’s a nice idea, and Smith does some really lovely things with “It Amazes Me,” but as structured, the number comes across more as an exercise, a proof-of-concept as it were, rather than as fully realized. Again, I would suggest doing more of the first song to clearly establish the singer’s starting position—and in English, so that the audience’s appreciation of the transition the singer goes through would not depend on its prior knowledge of the song.
Mid-way through Hollaender’s “Black Market,” Smith walks through the audience before returning to the stage. This is distracting and has no compensating pay-off. It’s likely that the awkward swapping of mics from cord to cordless that preceded the junket into the audience on opening night has since been done away with, but one can only hope that the entire business has been eighty-sixed. Finally, his interpretation of Hollaender’s “Illusions” is not yet at the level it will doubtless be after he’s performed it a few more times.
I lied when I said finally. There’s one other point: Smith has changed a few lyrics. In “Black Market,” instead of singing “You take art/I’ll take Spam” he sings “You take art/I’ll take what I can.” In “Illusions,” he sings “For in this crazy paradise/you are in love again” instead of “…you are in love with pain.” And he’s updated “Münchhausen” from “You may be Christian or a Jew” to “…Muslim or a Jew.” (At least this is not nearly so bad as the abominable alteration Ute Lemper made to that song, changing “Germany” to “Tennessee” in the line “I was really shocked to see the film was made in Germany.”) I wont’ take the time now to explain why I believe the original lyrics are superior to the revised versions; the fact that they are the words that Hollaender wrote is quite sufficient argument. On the other hand, if any of these changes were unintentional slips of the tongue, I take this back, because anyone can make a mistake of the moment. Note that I discussed the issue of changing lyrics with Smith a year or so ago; we don’t see eye to eye on it.
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.