Mamie Parris: “Surrender—An Andrew Lloyd Webber Thrill Ride”
First: a word of warning to anyone who knows me. Sit down and take a deep breath. You are about to hear me praise a show that celebrates the music of Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber. The cause for this “aberration”?— Surrender—An Andrew Lloyd Webber Thrill Ride, which debuted recently at The Green Room 42. To be more precise, it is because of the extraordinary talents of Mamie Parris, who provides the lion’s share of the thrills to be had on this ride. Her sensational blend of powerhouse strength, gorgeous tone, and an actor’s subtlety brand her as one of the most exciting cabaret performers of 2023. The show that creator/director Ben Rimalower has fashioned for her is a triumph—a near perfect blend of Broadway and cabaret, helped immeasurably by the bravura turn by music director Brian Nash on piano, vocals, and general bonhomie.
But all this thought, intelligence, wit, and passion would be for nought it if were not centered on Parris’s spectacular performance. Her stratospheric soprano and her warmly expressive lower register bookend an altogether dazzling vocal performance that bursts from the stage like a shooting star piercing the night sky. What sets her apart for me is that no matter how stunningly gymnastic her vocals, and no matter how big her sound, she never loses the storytelling, never shows off for the sake of showing off, and always retains an intimate, personal delivery. She has an eternal sparkle in her eye that deflates a lot of the composer’s heavier conceits, and she and Nash have a fine old time mocking his stylistic excesses when they choose. At the same time, she can discover unexpected emotional truth and simple beauty in material I had previously dismissed.
Her combination of direct embrace, sly comment, and astonishing vocal command are all evident in the opener, “Starlight Express” (Richard Stilgoe, from Starlight Express); it’s a rousing welcome that easily obliterates the innate silliness of the song (and show that spawned it) as it changes key after key after key after key. Her ingratiating patter is as welcome as her singing talent as she leads into a lovely version of “The Last Man in My Life” (Don Black, from Song and Dance). A note to any producer-types reading this: please mount a revival of Song & Dance starring Ms. Parris at your earliest opportunity.
A pairing of “Surrender” (Don Black, Christopher Hampton, from Sunset Boulevard) and “Chanson D’enfance” (Don Black, Charles Hart, from Aspects of Love) leads into a dizzying medley that follows a demented diva as she wanders through a valley of musicals including Cats, Phantom of the Opera, and Evita, choosing to alight for a few minutes in each, staying just long enough to drive the audience crazy, and then moving on to the next, and upping the theatrical ante with each stop. It is a tour de force for the singer, the pianist, and the director.
After such an electrifying display, Parris shifts gear into pop perfection with “Come Back with the Same Look” (Don Black, from Song and Dance) and “Could We Start Again Please?” (Tim Rice, from Jesus Christ Superstar). The solitary misstep of the evening is an extended story about the initial appearance of Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar as concept albums rather than stage productions; it is clearly put together by and intended for diehard fans and purists, of which I am not one. I do not find Parris’s “premier” stage performance of first-draft lyrics particularly noteworthy or funny, especially when it is taking time away from the genius on display everywhere else in the hour. This section only proves that the creators were right to jettison the original lyrics and write new ones. But it is a blessedly minor interference as the singer returns to Song and Dance for her next delight— “Tell Me on a Sunday” (Don Black) coupled with “Anything but Lonely” (Don Black, Charles Hart, from Aspects of Love). It is a shining example of what happens when a medley is well thought out; each song illuminated and deepened the other. It is a perfect pairing, beautifully delivered.
Following a charming tale of how she came to record a bonus track on the original cast album of School of Rock, she delivers the comedic gem, “Give Up Your Dreams” (Glenn Slater) that is funnier than anything I have previously heard from Lord Andrew. It is a rock & roll retelling of Noel Coward’s classic, “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington.” Every inch the eleven o’clock number, “Gethsemane” (Tim Rice, from Jesus Christ Superstar), affords Parris the chance to pull out all the emotional, theatrical and dramatic stops without losing the remarkable vocal control she has so impressively maintained throughout the night. All by itself it is reason enough to call the show a “thrill ride.”
Closing with an anthemic “As If We Never Said Goodbye” (Don Black, Christopher Hampton, from Sunset Boulevard) which has rarely seemed so explosively passionate, she caps it and the show with a dollop of Cats for the perfect ending. As an encore, she and Nash create a Mardi Gras all their own on stage with “Buenos Aires” (Tim Rice, from Evita) and “Pharaoh’s Story” (Tim Rice, from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat), departing to a roaring standing ovation by the audience. “Brava”, “bravo”, and “bravi” to all! Mamie Parris is a cabaret star, here to shine and here to stay.
Presented at The Green Room 42, 570 Tenth Ave., NYC, Oct. 19 & Nov. 6, 2023.
About the Author
Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”