In her new show, “I Love Being Here with You,” Natalie Arneson sings songs written by and/ or associated with the great Peggy Lee. One of the tricky things about doing a tribute to a singer is that if one chooses an iconic star like Lee, or Ella Fitzgerald, or Frank Sinatra, one can pretty much have one’s pick of the Great American Songbook for material. So choosing to feature songs that Lee also wrote is a nice way to personalize the concept and give it a more distinct feel. In fact, part of me wishes that she had restricted herself exclusively to Lee originals.
The show began a bit shakily with hard swing numbers that seem a bit out of Arneson’s comfort zone. Her vocals on “New York City Blues” (Lee, Quincy Jones) and “Things Are Swinging” (Lee, Jack Marshall) seemed forced at times and not always in the pocket. This is particularly unfortunate because Peggy Lee swung effortlessly and the lyrics she contributed to these numbers were meant to enhance and reflect that swing. She was a jazz singer; Arneson is not. She relaxed a bit more with “I Don’t Know Enough About You” and “It’s a Good Day” (both written by Lee with then-husband, Dave Barbour). These are more pop/cabaret in style and she was charming on both. One of the highlights of the show was a trio of songs from Lady and the Tramp (Lee, Sonny Burke)—the singer made the most of these quietly charming songs and was downright endearing.
The other highlight for me was Lee and Duke Ellington’s “I’m Gonna Go Fishin’,” adapted from the score of Anatomy of a Murder. On this one she seemed more at ease with the swing and used it to her advantage on Lee’s hip lyrics that might or might not be about catching trout. Her version of the haunting ballad “Where Can I Go Without You?” (Lee, Victor Young) was quite moving. “Lean on Me” (Lee, Mundell Lowe, Mike Melvoin) nicely captured Lee’s leaning toward pop rock a bit in her later years. The show’s title song, by Lee and Bill Schluger, was a bit of a throw-away, but nicely thrown for all that.
The connection she set up between Lee and Ray Charles was not reason enough to include a rather lackluster “Hallelujah I Love [Him] So.” She set up “Lover” (Rodgers & Hart) by discussing its fiery original tempo, which proved a mistake when she failed to come up with a version that lived up to that characterization. The same held true for “Fever” (Eddie Cooley, Otis Blackwell with additional lyrics by Lee) for which she made a point of telling the audience that she and her band wanted to do a more modern take on a classic song. There were changes at the beginning of the number that had a different feel from the original, but the arrangement didn’t bring much new to it, and soon evolved, or devolved, into a very traditional take on the song and robbed Arneson of having some fun with a classic. Each of the non-Lee inclusions might easily have been replaced by such songs as “The Shining Sea,” “Johnny Guitar,” or even “We Are Siamese” to make the show a more consistent statement.
Music director/pianist Matt Baker, Adam Kabak on bass, and Pete Zimmer on drums were on fire. It was a pleasure to hear such accomplished jazz and pop throughout the night. Arneson’s use of patter was also exemplary. These were not Wikipedia snippets about Lee, but interesting, rare, and personal stories that nicely led in and out of the songs. I felt the directorial hand of Natalie Douglas here and throughout the evening to good effect. Arneson’s gown, swept-back hair, and the use of an old-fashioned recording microphone were all that the show needed in way of “set”—perfectly evoking the image of the big band singer, which is how Lee got her start.
With more time and performances, the less-than-successful swing numbers will inevitably get smoother and stronger. While waiting for that, there are already many pleasures to be had in Natalie Arneson’s new show.
“I Love Being Here with You”
Don’t Tell Mama – November 23, December 2, 4
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?”