Monday, April 09, 2007

The Story of Her Life

[This is the text of my review for KDHX-FM of Sally Mayes' appearance at the Savoy Room Cabaret here in St. Louis.]

When the late 18th century English author Horace Walpole first coined the term “serendipity”, he meant it to refer to the knack for discovery, by accident and sagacity, of one thing while in pursuit of something different. Due to what may have been a copying error in the original Oxford English Dictionary (OED) entry, the word has since come to mean "the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident". Sagacity, somehow, failed to make the final cut.

I bring this up because the appearance of Sally Mayes as the closing act in the current Cabaret at the Savoy Room series is an instance of both notions of serendipity. Her show, The Story Hour, is a happy and unexpected discovery, and Mike Isaacson and company have shown great sagacity in engaging her when Marin Mazzie was forced to bow out. Both Walpole and the OED are thus satisfied.

So was the audience, judging by the response. Mayes combines solid musical skills and shrewd dramatic judgment with an effervescent, “down home” approach that, I expect, harks back to her childhood in the east Texas town of Livingston. She describes the place as “a hell-hole not to be believed”, but it seems to have added a dimension to her stage presence that performers raised in larger towns closer to the 20th century don't always possess. The result, in any case, is irresistible.

Originally performed and recorded live for Varese Sarabande back in 1999, The Story Hour is a surprising, enlightening and thoroughly entertaining evening of songs by writers who are, for the most part, well outside the usual Great American Songbook crowd, including Bruce Springsteen, Jim Steinman, Dar Williams, Christine Lavin and even Mayes herself. “This is an evening of story songs”, noted Mayes in her introduction. “Hopefully, some of them will make you laugh; some of them will make you cry. And who knows? Along the way we might even learn something.” They do, and I believe we did.

The Springsteen number is “Meeting Across the River”, a film noir-style slice of urban lowlife. It's an odd choice, given the strong thread of bathetic male bravado that runs through it, but Mayes made it work anyway. From Jim Steinman, we have “Heaven Can Wait”, an unusually lyrical moment from the 1977 Meat Loaf album Bat Out of Hell. The actual meaning of the lyrics is as elusive now as it was back then, but it's great to have them sung by some one who actually has the vocal chops to give them real expression.

Woman singer-songwriters aren't often represented on cabaret programs, so it was nice to hear two of the best represented on The Story Hour - Dar Williams and Christine Lavin. From Williams, there's “The Babysitter's Here”, a sweetly sentimental memory portrait of the 1960s'-hip sitter which, even if it didn't make any of us cry, clearly brought a lump to some throats.

Well, to mine, anyway.

Christine Lavin is represented by the delightful “Shopping Cart of Love: The Play”, a funny and truthful song/monologue combo from the 1990 Attainable Love album. This is great piece for a singing actress and Mayes performance is sheer perfection.

That's not to say that more traditional songwriters are ignored completely. There is, for example, a Frank Loesser song, but it's his little-known (to me, anyway) “Hamlet” from the 1949 musical murder mystery (!) film Red, Hot and Blue, where it served as a showpiece for Betty Hutton. Mayes and her music director Patrick Brady gave it a high-energy, close harmony treatment reminiscent of The Manhattan Transfer or, to be more historically accurate, the Andrews Sisters.

There's also a Burt Bacharach/Hal David number, “Anyone Who Had a Heart” (a Dionne Warwick hit from 1963), but it's ingeniously combined with the Leon Russell/Bonnie Bramlett chestnut “Superstar” - a song which, until I heard it in this context, I really thought I never wanted to encounter again. The fact that I actually liked it this time is a tribute both to Mayes' heartfelt interpretation and Brady's shrewd arrangement.

Brady, I should note, is more than just a skilled accompanist. He also provided solid backup vocals on several songs, and his arrangements are impressive. He and Mayes were an unstoppable team, even when the Sheldon's dysfunctional HVAC system threatened to wilt performers and audience alike.

In fact, the only criticism I can offer of the evening is that something in the sound system sometimes rendered lyrics incomprehensible, especially in rapid patter songs like “Hamlet” or very soft ballads like “Meeting Across the River”. Listening to these same numbers on the CD, every syllable was clear as a bell, so I'm inclined to blame some combination of the technology itself or Mayes' lack of familiarity with the hall rather than the performances themselves.

That said, Sally Mayes' The Story Hour brought the 2006 - 2007 Cabaret at the Savoy Room series to a brilliant conclusion. It also completes the circle that started last fall with Kitty Carlisle Hart's own “story hour”, reminding us that one of the things that makes us human beings unique is our irresistible desire to explain ourselves and our world by telling stories. At its best, that's what cabaret does, and what The Story Hour did.

For more information on the Savoy Room series, check out the web site. For more information on Sally Mayes, go to her agent's web site.

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