Richard Holbrook

October 24, 2014

Richard HolbrookFred Astaire’s relaxed grace on the dance floor spilled over into his whole onscreen persona—including his work as a singer. For Astaire, the bridge between speaking and singing was really nothing but a couple of steppingstones, over which he lightly skipped. There’s nothing jarring when, in a film scene, he suddenly breaks into song—or, of course, into dance. As writer Robert B. Ray put it, Astaire in his films regularly showed how “the regimes of everyday life (where we merely walk and talk) and those of utopian transcendence (where we dance and sing) are not as distinct as we have been taught.”

Early in his tribute show at Don’t Tell Mama, “The Untapped Fred Astaire Revisited,” Richard Holbrook tells us of his intention to “tap into” the simple and direct way that Astaire had with a song. That, however, is easier said than done. Holbrook is a talented singer with a baritone sound that is rich, full-bodied and forceful. And with that last adjective is the rub. “Forceful” is not a word that jumps to mind when describing Fred Astaire. Onscreen, his serenity lets us know that he is self-possessed and in command. There’s no need for him to turn up the volume when our ears are cocked to hear what he has to say.

At moments in the first of his two performances of this show, Holbrook suggested the Astaire singing style. These included his take on the Gershwins’ “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” and parts of Dietz & Schwartz’s “By Myself” and Johnny Mercer’s “Something’s Gotta Give.” And, curiously, another such moment came with Arlen and Mercer’s “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)”—a song far more associated with Frank Sinatra than with Astaire. On this number, Holbrook played a character: a harmless, rather likable tippler. He seemed quite relaxed and in touch with his listeners. Maybe he’d have fared better had he approached other songs in the show as character pieces as well.

The program that Holbrook and director Richard Barclay have fashioned is shaped around the Astaire biography. Mostly this involves factual information—basic knowledge that could be found in a Wikipedia article—and it all comes blowing toward the audience in big gusts. I didn’t feel I learned much from the presentation about the essence of Fred Astaire, other than in a rather moving sequence concerning the death of his first wife, Phyllis. Anyone who hopes to grasp what Astaire’s partnerships with, say, his sister Adele or Ginger Rogers were like won’t get it from Holbrook’s narration.

Whole stand-alone songs, partial songs, and medleys of songs help Holbrook tell the story. Thirty-nine titles in all appear on the song list, and Holbrook is almost frenetic at times in his determination to get everything told and sung. Sometimes—after he has finished a song that is freestanding and not truncated—he will pause to allow the audience to applaud. But on shorter numbers, he’ll stop only to take a quick gasp of air before continuing his monologue with “Then, in 1932…” or “Well, there was another song written for Royal Wedding….” Holbrook delivers from a memorized script, which is, of course, a common practice. But making it sound in any way informal is a challenge for him. At the end of the show, though, when he thanks his colleagues, he has an off-the-cuff quality that is very ingratiating I wish he could bring some of that to the whole set.

Fortunately, Holbrook’s vocal charms—even when they’re non-Astaire-ish—help alleviate some of the problems I’ve cited. And the talents of musical director and pianist Tom Nelson and the other members of his trio (bassist Tom Kirchmer and drummer Peter Grant) are a plus. I especially liked their graceful playing on a pairing of Irving Berlin’s “Isn’t This a Lovely Day” and the Gershwins’ “A Foggy Day.”

Holbrook’s enthusiasm for Astaire and his desire to be thorough in presenting his story are admirable. But this show would be much stronger were he and Barclay to cut at least a third of the songs from the roster and to distill the patter to a handful of remarks that truly give us some insight into what made the hoofer from Nebraska such a beloved star.

“The Untapped Fred Astaire Revisited”
Don’t Tell Mama  –  October 19, 26


About the Author

Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in and, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is currently literary manager for Broad Horizons Theatre Company.