Zora Rasmussen’s decades-spanning career has touched on many of the signposts of New York nightlife, from appearances in Broadway shows, to adventurous, edgy Off-Broadway theatre, to iconic cabaret rooms like the legendary Reno Sweeney. I first reviewed her long ago in the “golden age” of cabaret so I was excited to see her back on stage in her recent show at Pangea. The years have imbued her voice with a burnished, smoky intensity, and her storytelling and phrasing have grown even more dramatic and incisive. She has chosen two especially fine musicians to accompany her on her return. Music director and arranger Bette Sussman and double bassist Zev Katz (each of whom has a list of credits that could easily fill the rest of this review) provide the thrilling musical support on which she presents each song as a very personal confession or short story. With these three on stage there is a lot of musical history to be shared with a grateful audience.
And what songs they are! Spanning years and styles with remarkable ease, she has created an eclectic set that shows off her singular talents to great effect. She opens with the folkish delight of Nick Drake’s “One of These Things First” as an inviting, thoughtfully phrased welcome to the crowd. Anyone who followed the singer “back in the day” always delighted at the time machine quality to her choices. And in keeping with that, she then jumps back to 1905 for “He’s My Pal” (Vincent Bryan, Gus Edwards) which she reinvigorates without a sign of cobwebs. Her affection for the material and her subtle approach lets the audience find the humor on their own in lines like “…his heart is as big as a ham…” without hitting them over the head. Her time machine’s next stop is 1983 for Eurythmics’ “Here Comes the Rain Again” (David A. Stewart, Annie Lennox) which substitutes haunting acceptance for the driving rhythms of the original.
Her “Speak Low” (Kurt Weill, Ogden Nash, from One Touch of Venus) is as vital as if it were written yesterday and is a riveting, erotically charged declaration. Katz’s bowing is particularly effective on it. Brilliantly pairing “Married” (John Kander, Fred Ebb, from Cabaret) with “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” (Frederick Lowe, Alan Jay Lerner, from My Fair Lady) allows her to explore and contrast the rush of early marriage with the ennui of the later years. The words of the latter are given an uncommonly negative spin that transforms the song; it’s a high point of the show. A second Nick Drake classic, “River Man,” is storytelling of the highest order, and a hypnotic display of vocal and dramatic power.
Paying tribute to David Lasley, one of the lesser known but brighter lights of contemporary singing and songwriting, Rasmussen includes “I Ain’t Gonna Let You Break My Heart Again” (David Lasley, Julie Lasley) made famous by Bonnie Raitt. I applaud any attempt to memorialize Lasley, who was one of the best singers and composers we had until his untimely death. Hearing Brenda Russell’s “Get Here” is like getting to catch up with an old friend that you haven’t seen in a while. The singer wrings every bit of longing and desire from it. Her beautiful encore of “Where or When” (Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart) proves that she is equally as commanding when visiting the Great American Songbook.
If the number of songs seems oddly short for a full cabaret show, it is because a good deal of time is spent on comedic monologues between the songs. It is not that the monologues aren’t funny—they are. But there is an obvious, frantic, desperate “wackiness” to them that is at odds with the gorgeous, sophisticated vocals. The comedy becomes intrusive with the realization that the time would be better spent singing. I am reminded of a line from Merrily We Roll Along when lyricist Charley Kringas remarks about his estranged writing partner Franklin Shepard, “He does the money thing very well, but you know what? Other people do it better. And he does the music thing very well, but you know what? No one does it better.”
Zora Rasmussen’s brilliant vocals survive the comic onslaught, and she presents a show with some of the best and most individual singing to be heard in New York. Unfortunately, it is as if one is attending a Morgana King concert that is constantly being interrupted by a Bette Midler impersonator. I am not saying that all the comedy needs to be excised completely but some judicious (and fearless) pruning is definitely in order. With her obvious taste and talent, I am sure the singer and her terrific musicians can come up with some equally stunning songs and arrangements to fill the space. Zora Rasmussen will be returning to the club in the Fall for an extended residency.
Presented at Pangea, 178 Second Ave., NYC on June 22, 2023.
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?”