“The Cosmo Report”
Her delivery of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” (Dorothy Fields, Jimmy McHugh) is an extended burst of energy: fast, like a locomotive with no brakes, but fun and knowingly playful. In stark contrast, she gives the next song, the Gershwins’ “How Long Has This Been Going On?,” an affecting and beautifully centered interpretation. She is able to shift from up-numbers to ballads and from comedy to fervent emotion effortlessly; her artistry is so strong that she can take us from one mood to the other without the aid of a transitional device, such as set-up patter.
Among the evening’s other songs are: Alec Wilder and Loonis McGlohon’s exquisite “Blackberry Winter,” interpreted with extraordinary focus and simplicity and enhanced by impressionistic instrumental accompaniment; Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” given one of the most insightful and affecting renditions I’ve ever heard; Julie Gold’s “Journey,” in which Challis fully realizes the warmth and benevolence with which Gold infused the song; and Angela Kaset’s deeply moving “Something in Red”—a performance so superb that the night I attended, the audience responded with cheers, not something that often happens at the end of a ballad.
If you’ve read my reviews and commentary over the years, you know that I have misgivings about the use, let alone the overuse, of medleys. (By medley, I’m referring to any combination of more than one song.) In this show, there are four song pairings, and in all but one, the device is effective, starting at the top of the show with Jerry Herman’s “It’s Today” and Dorothy Fields and Harold Arlen’s “Today I Love Everybody,” which form an ebullient opening number. Dietz & Schwartz’s “You and the Night and the Music” is paired with Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”; each song is given its due, both are performed with emotional commitment, and combined they form a strong, brooding statement pondering the transience of love.
A pairing of Shelton Brooks’s “Darktown Strutters’ Ball” and Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” is a wow, the product of Challis’s singing, the smoking arrangement, and the rollicking instrumental accompaniment (musical director Tedd Firth on piano, John Redsecker on drums, Dick Sarpola on bass). What Firth makes the piano do is superhuman. But he’s never gimmicky and he never merely shows off or upstages; rather, his brilliance is always employed in support of the singer, whether it be Challis or any of the other fortunate vocalists he works with.
In the fourth pairing, “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?” (Alan Jay Lerner, Burton Lane) and Sondheim’s “Could I Leave You?” are interwoven. This approach weakens the more acerbic of the two songs, the Sondheim, and gives the other short shrift. So, while a thematic connection could be posited to justify combining the two songs, the interweaving actually does a disservice to both of them.
My only other reservation is the inclusion of Christine Lavin’s “I Am Psychic, So Are You.” Though Lavin is a marvelous songwriter, this piece, which is akin to a mathematical parlor game with audience participation, is too obvious and unchallenging to sustain its considerable length.
As always, Challis’s patter is at once polished and informally chatty—a rare and winning combination—and as always, it’s very funny. As she’s done in most [all?] of her shows, she comments delightfully on recent trends and quirky fads in our popular culture, and this time out—or at least she did on the night I attended—she tells a hilarious and not-for-children story about her experiences going on tour with Hermione Gingold.
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.