Thanksgiving weekend (November 26 and 27), Jim Dolan’s Blue Strawberry nightclub gave cabaret lovers something to be thankful for: two nights of the legendary cabaret singer and pianist Steve Ross. I was there for the packed Friday night house, and (to quote one of Ross’s favorite songwriters, Noël Coward), “I couldn’t have liked it more.”
Ross has a long and happy relationship with St. Louis, going back to the early days of the Grandel Cabaret Series, where I first saw him two decades ago. Debonair, witty, and charismatic, Ross never fails to get straight to the heart of every song, whether it’s an obscure comic gem like Milton Ager and Jack Yellen’s “Hungry Women” (introduced by Eddie Cantor in his 1928 musical Whoopee!); a sentimental standard like Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin’s “Thanks for the Memory” (Bob Hope’s theme song, which he introduced with frequent co-star Shirley Ross in The Big Broadcast of 1938); or the smoky, late-night regret of the Kingston Trio hit “Scotch and Soda”.
Without fail, Ross makes certain that you not only hear but actually listen to the lyrics – an essential skill for the cabaret artist. An evening with Steve Ross is an object lesson in why cabaret is such a vibrant art form.
Much of Ross’s latest show, Back on the Town, was likely familiar to fans. Many of his favorite songwriters were represented, including Coward, Cole Porter, the Gershwins (“George and his lovely wife Ira,” as a misinformed DJ is supposed to have said in the 1950s), Irving Berlin, and of course, the newly-departed Stephen Sondheim. The latter was represented only by “Send in the Clowns” (from A Little Night Music) but what a lovely performance it was.
There were some songs that were new to me as well—a reminder that Ross knows well how to assemble a show that mixes audience favorites with possible future favorites. In that category I’d include “My Circle of Friends” from the 2008 album Hallways by Carol Hall (best known for her musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), with its sweetly sentimental thoughts on what Tales of the City's Anna Madrigal called one’s “logical family,” and “This Moment,” written by John Wallowitch and Bertram Ross for the autobiographical 1999 film of the same name. As someone with more years behind him than ahead, the lyric struck me as especially powerful: “It takes a life to realize / What life is all about / And life is all about this moment.”
And, happily, there were numbers by immortal French singer/songwriters like Charles Trenet (“La Mer,” done very much in the Trenet style) and Charles Aznavour (“Le Temps,” with English lyrics by Gene Lees). There was also, happily, Ross’s trademark instrumental medley of Edith Piaf favorites—always a hit with us fans. The Francophile feast included a song he co-wrote with Barry Day, “Whenever I Think of Paris.” It’s a wistful love letter to a city I adore as much as he obviously does.
Another notable item was Cole Porter’s popular “Anything Goes” with some new lyrics by screenwriter Joe Keenan. They were witty, to be sure, but I’m not sure all of Porter’s originals seem really need a rewrite to make them relevant: “The world has gone mad today / And good's bad today, / And black's white today, / And day's night today.” To say nothing of:
Just think of those shocks you've got
And those knocks you got
And those blues you got
From that news you got
And those pains you got
(If any brains you've got)
From those little radios.
Change that last line to, say, “From those angry talk shows” or “From social media prose” and everything old is new again.
“But I digress” – Tom Lehrer.
So, yeah, it was another charming and entertaining evening with one of cabaret’s leading lights. Thanks to Jim Dolan and the Blue Strawberry for bringing Steve Ross to town once again. Long may his light shine. Here in St. Louis, we still get a kick out of him.