Monday, October 06, 2008

The Soul of Wit

If you weren't already familiar with the work of cabaret legend Steve Ross you might expect his show To Wit: Ross on Wry - Funny Songs Throughout The Ages to be somewhat lacking in variety. After all, how much range can there really be in the “novelty song” subgenre?

The answer, as the audience at the Kranzberg Center discovered this past week (October 1st through 4th), is “quite a lot, actually” - especially when someone with Ross' impeccable taste and graceful style is at the helm.

Over the course of around 90 minutes, Mr. Ross showed just how wide a range of material is encompassed by the phrase “funny songs.” The evening included two dozen numbers that ranged from British music hall classics such as “Don't Go in the Lion's Cage Tonight” (a hit originally for Beatrice Kay and later for Julie Andrews) to a medley of Flanders and Swan gems to Portia Nelson's “Confessions of a New Yorker” (in which she admits to being “in hate/love” with the town). Coward and Porter were well represented, as you might expect, but so were lesser-known songwriters such as Murray Grand (“The Spider and the Fly”) and the team of Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray (“Home Sweet Heaven”, a name-dropping extravaganza first sung by Tammy Grimes in the 1964 musical High Spirits).

Mr. Ross even treated us to a comic monologue, “Prinderella and the Cince”, which seems to have undergone some metamorphoses and elaborations since comic Frederick Chase Taylor (a.k.a Colonel Stoopnagle) first published this classic collection of Spoonerisms in 1946. The original can still be found on line at, among other places. One look will explain why Mr. Ross was obliged, atypically, to work from a script for this item.

As is so often the case with Mr. Ross' work, it's difficult to anoint any particular collection of songs with the title “highlights”. Personally, I was the most delighted by the half dozen pieces I'd never heard before, such as “The Unrequited Love March” (in which typically languishing lyrics are coupled with a rousing Sousa-esqe melody), Dorothy Shay's twisted “Say That We're Sweethearts Again” (“I never knew that our romance had ended / Until you poisoned my food”) and Brown and Henderson's “Ladies and Gentlemen, That's Love”, which was written as a satirical response to Porter's “What Is This Thing Called Love?” (“When a hippopotamus / Does what no one dare discuss / Ladies and gentlemen, that's love”).

I'd be less than honest, however, if I didn't cop to being equally happy to hear favorites like Ivor Novello's “And Her Mother Came Too” and Coward's caustic “Mrs. Worthington”. And what a pleasure it was to reacquaint myself Rogers and Hart's “At the Roxy Music Hall” - a song I haven't heard since I performed it myself an undisclosed number of decades ago in a revue for the now deceased City Players.

The more discerning among you have probably noticed by now that I've not had much to say about Mr. Ross' actual performance. That's due, in part, to the ease and grace which characterize his work. He makes himself transparent, so to speak, to the music, creating the illusion that the songwriter is communicating with us directly.

It's also due to my inability to come up with novel ways of stating the obvious: the Mr. Ross remains one of cabaret's leading lights. Indeed, simply to say that he is Steve Ross is probably praise enough.

Mr. Ross' show was the first one I've seen at the new Kranzberg Center's cabaret space, and I must say the room itself looks and sounds good. The stage is raised just high enough to give everyone a good view of the artist but not so much that it distances the performer from the audience - as the stage in the Sheldon's more cavernous Savoy Room does. The amplified sound is clear and undistorted and the lighting grid looks substantial enough to meet the needs of any cabaret act I've ever seen. With the unexpected demise of the Flim Flam Room at Savor this past summer, the Kranzberg would appear to be the new first choice for cabaret.

Next at the Kranzberg: Lee Lessack with a Johnny Mercer tribute October 29th through November 1st. Between now and then Cabaret St. Louis, the new organization that sponsored Mr. Ross' appearance, will bring us classical soprano Sylvia McNair with a Great American Songbook program October 16th and 17th at the Sheldon and local cultural icon Fran Landesman with an evening of songs and stories October 22nd through 25th at the Gaslight Theatre on North Boyle. For information on these and other upcoming Cabaret St. Louis attractions, visit their web site at