Metropolitan Room – March 7 – 10
Marissa Mulder’s latest engagement at the Metropolitan Room was her prize for winning the club’s 2011 MetroStar Talent Challenge. Considering the very high level of artistry, intelligence, and poise she displays in this new show, it’s hard to believe that only two years have passed since I first saw her perform. She made her debut in 2010—a young singer brimming with promise and radiating innocence and an easy, unaffected charm. Since then I’ve seen her often, each time her performance more assured and her interpretations richer than the time before—and withal, she’s never lost her immense likeability or her youthful spirit, the sense that all things are possible. And now this show!
One might be tempted to think of her as a band singer, for as with most singers in that category, music flows from her fluidly and soothingly, and her voice has a very pleasing effect on the ear. But one would be wrong: while band singers honor a song’s words and music, they generally do not dissect the lyric and reveal its levels and nuances. That approach to lyric interpretation is most characteristically the purview of cabaret singing. Marissa Mulder combines the best qualities of each genre.
One category she most assuredly does not belong in is nightclub singing, an artistic approach that focuses on presentation rather than interpretation, an approach in which style and arrangement take precedence over exploration of the lyric. On the contrary, nothing Mulder does in this show is designed to dazzle us, and nothing is about the arrangement. Instead, she uses songs to convey thoughts and feelings, and the arrangements exist to support that, while at the same time providing their own musical pleasures. Kudos to musical director Bill Zeffiro for those arrangements and for his sensitive piano accompaniment, and to John Loehrke on bass and Pete Anderson on woodwinds for their fine and equally sympathetic contributions.
The beauty of her approach is immediately evident, with the evening’s opening number, a pairing of two children’s songs for adults. In “Never Never Land” (Jule Styne, Comden & Green), when she sings “You’ll have a treasure if you stay there, more precious far than gold,” she’s not just telling us, she’s showing us: her joy serves as a palpable manifestation of that treasure. With “Pure Imagination” (Leslie Bricusse, Anthony Newley), when she sings “Want to change the world? There’s nothing to it,” it’s clear she believes it, and her delivery suggests that to think otherwise would be just plain ridiculous.
On “Day In—Day Out” (Rube Bloom, Johnny Mercer), she shows that she makes a commitment to meaning even with up numbers, and she imbues the song with a sense of wonder and delight—one of many examples of her surprising us with a fresh viewpoint, different from any other singer’s interpretation. Her affecting reading of “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg, Billy Rose) is more profoundly sincere than are the renditions one commonly hears. She does a lovely job on “Lullaby for Nathan Charles” (Michael Leonard, David Hajdu), a pretty, tender lullaby to a son, with the sweetly poignant lyric “my prayers are answered in your dreams”; it is a little gem.
Mulder displays a natural flair for comedy. Never have I heard Dave Frishberg’s “My Attorney Bernie” performed with such appealing innocence—as though Bernie’s wisdom and the appropriateness of believing in him were self-evident. “My Kind of Guy,” is a funny song that Bill Zeffiro wrote for her, in which she proudly—but winningly—acknowledges her dreadful taste in men. And her performance of the Gershwins’ “Lorelei” is one of the most delightful renditions of any song done by anyone, at any time, anywhere.
She frequently introduces layers of complexity into her interpretations in subtle and unobtrusive ways. For example, with Rodgers and Hart’s “Nobody’s Heart,” she accepts being alone with considerable grace, but it is a grace that is tinged with a most delicate sadness. On Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” her reading is at once a simple admission—i.e., she’s telling us about the duality of the way she’s viewed life—and also a moment of self-awareness, in which she realizes this about herself. And her interpretation of Kander and Ebb’s “The Money Tree” tempers the lyric’s harshly realistic expression of the hopelessness of life with her lover with brief glimpses of the happiness the two of them could have if he behaved differently—all of this accomplished in a turn that is equally impressive vocally.
Though it’s not in this show, another example is “Imagination” (Johnny Burke, Jimmy Van Heusen), which she did last year in her Van Heusen show. Her delivery of the line “And yet I can’t imagine that you want me, too” is not just a statement, but also a question, as though she were expressing a hope, an invitation to be told that she’s wrong about not being desired. I’ve never seen anyone else accomplish so much with that line. I’ve included this example because it also illustrates another point: her growth over the past two years. When she first did her Van Heusen show, her interpretation of “Imagination” needed to dig deeper and to be more specific; she didn’t deliver this line reading until a return engagement some time later. Her mentors during this process have been the aforementioned Bill Zeffiro and Karen Oberlin, who has directed all of Mulder’s shows, including this new one.
Two numbers are not yet where I’m sure they will be. Arlen and Mercer’s “Old Black Magic” needs an overarching point of view to tie all of the elements of the arrangement and the vocal interpretation together. And she needs to think some more about “Disneyland” (Marvin Hamlisch, Howard Ashman) and uncover another layer or two.
But she closes with a rendition of “Rainbow Connection” (Paul Williams, Kenny Ascher) that achieves an even greater ahhh quotient than did Kermit the Frog’s original, and anyone who manages to be even more touching than Kermit is aces with me.
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.