Friday, November 06, 2009

The Good Word(s)

Words! Words! I'm so sick of words! I get words all day through; First from him, now from you! Is that all you blighters can do? - Liza in My Fair Lady

That famous lyric of his not withstanding, the late Alan Jay Lerner was a great lover of words of all sorts. Indeed, at the beginning of what he calls “a disquisition on the genius and words of Alan Jay Lerner” (officially I Remember Him Well: The Songs of Alan Jay Lerner) Steve Ross notes that Mr. Lerner took an “almost sensual pleasure” in the English language. Given that Mr. Ross clearly does the same, you’d think that this combination of lyricist and performer would be a match made in Cabaret Heaven.

And, of course, you’d be right as the rain in Spain, except that this match was first made in January at The Oak Room in the Algonquin Hotel - which, I suppose, is close enough to Cabaret Heaven for rhetorical purposes.

The Kranzberg Center may not be as celestial as the Oak Room but it, too, was close enough to heaven when Mr. Ross brought his show there this past week (November 4 through 7, 2009). From the breezy rendition of “I’m on My Way” (from the 1951 near-hit Paint Your Wagon) to the charming closing medley of “Almost Like Being in Love” and “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” Mr. Ross had us all in the palm of his hand - a neat trick, since he was playing piano at the same time.

I have commented in the past on Mr. Ross’ uncanny ability to immediately connect with and completely charm his audience, so all I need say here is that nothing has changed since the last time he did that just over a year ago. He may need more memory aids than he once did, but then Mr. Ross is one of those performers who can even shuffle notes gracefully.

As is usually the case with a Steve Ross show, the evening is a well-chosen mix of the popular and obscure, spanning nearly all of Lerner’s forty-plus years as a lyricist. The obscure stuff includes songs from shows that are the chronological bookends for Lerner’s career: the charming ballad “My Last Love” from What’s Up? (1943 – his first collaboration with Fritz Loewe, with a plot that sounds like something out of an S.J. Perelman parody) and a trio of tunes from My Man Godfrey (1986, left uncompleted and unproduced at the time of Lerner’s death).

The Godfrey set was particularly welcome, including as it did both the ingratiating “Try Love” (which invokes the spirit of Cole Porter) and the enormously witty “I’ve Been Married” – as clever a demolition of the institution as you are likely to find outside of the work of Stephen Sondheim (“I have tied the wedding knot / Until the blood began to clot / For living life connubially / Isn’t any jubilee”).

You will not be surprised to learn that Mr. Lerner was married eight times.

Other delightful discoveries in the program included “I Never Met a Rose” from the 1974 film version of The Little Prince (a box office failure that has since gained a cult following), “Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here” from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (“the only song I know of about encouraging plant growth”), and “It’s Time for a Love Song”, a touching lament for lost youth and romance from Carmelina, an unsuccessful 1975 collaboration with Burton Lane. As Mr. Ross notes, “there aren’t many songs of rue and regret.. in the canon of Lerner and Loewe. But Lerner and Lane – well, that’s something else.”

The bulk of the evening, of course, was taken up with Lerner’s many hits – especially the ones he wrote with his long-time partner Fritz Loewe for shows such as My Fair Lady, Camelot, and Brigadoon. As is typically the case, Mr. Ross put his own unique stamp on all of them, including an introspective performance of “If Ever I Would Leave You” that brings out a wistfulness long hidden by Robert Goulet and his many imitators (not to knock Mr. Goulet; as written, the character of Lancelot is not much given to wistfulness). He even managed the neat trick of turning one of the most famous duets in film history – “I Remember it Well” – into a solo by subtly shifting between characters and dropping an unnecessary verse. It’s a lovely idea; I might have to steal it.

Through it all, Steve Ross the singer is well served by Steve Ross the pianist and music director, with smart arrangements and the occasional flashy keyboard solo. Steve Ross the musical historian is also on hand with interesting biographical tidbits and anecdotes about Lerner and the famous names who were a part of his creative life. It’s a wonder the stage isn’t more crowded.

But seriously: Steve Ross will continue to offer his entertaining traversal of the work of Alan Jay Lerner at the Kranzberg Center through Saturday, November 7th. For ticket information, call 314-534-1111 or visit the Cabaret St. Louis web site at

Next in the Cabaret St. Louis fall season: Nellie McKay on November 18th and 19th, followed by Bill Charlap and Sandy Stewart in December. The 2010 roster hasn’t been announced yet, but the featured artist for the annual Cabaret St. Louis fundraiser in February has: Broadway superstar Sutton Foster. Tickets will presumably be available soon; check the web site for details.

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