“We Can Make It: The Songs of Kander and Ebb”
The Metropolitan Room – December 7, 9, 12, 14
When I heard Marquee Five had been formed and was about to appear at the Metropolitan Room, I got all warm and toasty at the prospect of a five-part harmony infusion. It’s not something you get every day. Well, there were Paula Kelly and the Modernaires half a century back, and then The Fifth Dimension, and maybe Uptown Express in one of their shifting incarnations. Before them, there was the Carmen quintet. I suppose more heavy-duty brain-wracking would flush out a few more.
But still it’s rare, and when I heard furthermore that Marquee Five would be fresh-chording the Fred Ebb and John Kander songbook (lyricist Ebb’s surname conjuring the first three notes of a melody), I filled with more anticipation. In my head, I immediately started hearing a five-part treatment of “A Quiet Thing.”
And don’t you know that during the set, Mick Bleyer, Adam West Hemming, Vanessa Parvin, Sierra Rein and Julie Reyburn got around to “A Quiet Thing” with a far better version than the already-snazzy one I’d imagined. Aside from a tendency to raise their combined voices to a shout towards the ends of some of the selections on which they all chime in, they’re well on their way to a classy-chassis sound.
The ensemble numbers—most of them arranged by Hemming, all of them accompanied by Mark Janas and directed cleanly but not quite cleanly enough by Peter Napolitano—included a nifty version of “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup,” “I Move On” blended with “Yes,” “We Can Make It” and a genuinely suave take on “Cabaret.” The exploration of five-part possibilities on which they’ve embarked is already a hotsy-totsy adventure. All indications are that the farther they travel into unknown dynamics territory, the more exciting the results will be.
It would probably strike anyone programming this sort of group that an uninterrupted series of five-singer offerings holds the ugly threat of sameness. So for reasons that appear to be unimpeachably valid, the all-for-one-one-for-all items are alternated with solos, duets and quartets. At one point Hemming chants “I Don’t Remember You” with Bleyer following on “Sometimes a Day Goes By” and then a contrapuntal rendering of the two ballads. Something similar—and effective in its way—happens when Hemming solos on “We Can Make It,” Rein takes on “Maybe This Time” and Parvin tackles “Isn’t This Better?” before the three weave themselves together.
There’s terrific promise in these kinds of combos. The drawback at the moment is that separately Bleyer, Hemming, Parvin, Rein and Reyburn aren’t as effective as they are when together—the synergy dissipates. The men seem especially less strong, and it may even be a mistake for Hemming to deliver that ode to blandness, “Mr. Cellophane.” Rein does better with the self-pitying “Maybe This Time,” and Parvin shows signs of being able to act with “Isn’t It Better?”—although she didn’t make the most of the irony built into the lyric. Unsurprisingly, the more seasoned Reyburn contributes the best in-one piece, “Sing Happy.”
Not that the five themselves thought anything was wrong, giving too much of their patter over to complimenting each other. They’d be better off at this stage talking more about what in the Ebb-Kander collaboration they regard as unique, crucial, distinguishing. But they’re just starting. So best wishes to them.