“Whistling Away the Dark—Through Songs of Julie Andrews”
Metropolitan Room – August 3, 8, 15, 17
Shana Farr’s tribute to Julie Andrews, directed by Eric Michael Gillett, opens with a medley of a half-dozen songs associated with the great star. In these few minutes, several important things take place. We are reminded of how beloved the Julie Andrews songbook is. We hear what a fine musician musical director/pianist Fred Barton is, and we discover how rich a contribution Adam Fisher’s cello makes. Most important, we have the pleasure of listening to an exquisite and exquisitely pure voice, emanating from a lovely, elegant young woman. The opening sets our expectations high: it prepares us for an hour of beauty—and that is what we get.
The body of the show starts with the song that launched Julie Andrews’s career, “Je suis Titania” by Ambroise Thomas, from the opera Mignon. Andrews sang it in London in the 1947 revue Starlight Roof and became an overnight sensation. She was 12 years old. Farr tosses off this difficult coloratura aria as though it were, well, whatever the musical equivalent of a piece of cake is. Terrific! (Though Andrews sang it in English, Farr sings it in the original French. It’s probably just as well, for in her memoir, Andrews describes the English translation as “silly beyond belief.”)
The show includes several selections that are famously Andrews songs, for example “The Boy Friend” (Sandy Wilson), “In My Own Little Corner” (Rodgers & Hammerstein), “Ten Minutes Ago I Saw You” (also R&H), “I Could Have Danced All Night” (Lerner & Loewe), and “Feed the Birds” (Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman). Welcome quasi-obscurities include “I’ll Give You Three Guesses” (Henry Mancini, Johnny Mercer, from Darling Lili) and “Living in the Shadows” (Frank Wildhorn, from Victor/Victoria). Everything is impeccably, beautifully sung. And there is the gorgeous, Academy Award-nominated “Whistling Away the Dark” (also from Darling Lili), in which the piano and cello accompaniment are especially splendid.
Though everything is aurally gratifying, the evening would benefit from a stronger emotional dimension. In “Crazy World” (Henry Mancini, Leslie Bricusse) Farr comes very close to moving us, but the song segues to “I Have Confidence” (Richard Rodgers), thereby breaking the spell before it is able to have its impact. Further, the two songs make no sense together Though they are sung beautifully, the emotional effectiveness of several other songs is similarly undermined by having them grouped—for example, the Gershwins’ “Someone to Watch Over Me” segues to Noël Coward’s “Someday I’ll Find You”; to make its weight felt, each of these fine songs deserves its own space. And part of the solution might lie in Farr’s digging one level deeper into the lyrics. (With the Gershwin song, Farr makes a couple of choices that further diminish the emotional element: (1) her delivery of the verse is too offhand, too conversational, giving the (false) impression that the issue is not all that important to her; (2) she sings “to my heart he’ll carry the key-ey-ey,” thereby shifting attention from the underlying feeling to a vocal device.)
I question a few of the song selections. ‘You’re So London” was written by Mike Nichols and Ken Welch for the 1962 TV special Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall. For this show, Fred Barton has written new lyrics for Farr and him to sing. He did a good job and the number is fun, but the song is no longer about Julie Andrews and Carol Burnett; rather, it’s about Fred and Shana. Instead, why not have chosen the deliciously silly duet “Has Anybody Seen Our Ship?,” which Julie Andrews and Daniel Massey performed in the film Star?
Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s title song for Star is an OK song, but the film score includes many that are far better. Why not have done “Burlington Bertie from Bow”? That music hall delight would have added variety to the evening’s colors. Among the others from Star are “My Ship,” “Someday I’ll Find You,” “Do, Do, Do,” and “Dear Little Boy,” all of them superior—and most of them would have strengthened the show’s emotional component. I’d love to hear Farr essay any or all of these songs. Finally, apart from the issue of its position in the show, “I Have Confidence,” which Richard Rodgers wrote for the film version of The Sound of Music, is simply not a very good song.
Though I may seem to have spent a fair amount of time discussing problems, I do think this is a good show. It’s just that I think it could be even better.
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.