Thursday, April 29, 2010

Where Do Good Sopranos Go? Sarah Rice in “Screen Gems: Songs of Old Hollywood”


Zing zing zi zi zi zi zing…Yesterday, I found myself humming through Victor Herbert’s Italian Street Song (who needs an iPod?). I hadn’t thought of that song in years, but I’d just been to Sarah Rice’s Bistro-award winning (Best Theme) show at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. Screen Gems: Songs of Old Hollywood is a well-constructed and shimmeringly performed look at music from, and inspired by (in the case of silent films), movies circa 1919 to 1971, settling mostly in the 1930s. (I have some difficulty with including the late 1960s/early 1970s in a tribute to “Old Hollywood,” or am I being oversensitive?)

While waiting at the West End Café for a friend, a couple came in for dinner. Hearing there was a show, they asked, “Who is Sarah Rice? Is she good?” “She played Johanna in the original Sweeney Todd,” they were told. (See photo) The man’s response was, “Oh, a soprano – and wasn’t that 30 years ago?” and they went in to dinner.

It occurred to me that high soprano voices have largely been in hiding for a generation or more. Well, there is opera and there are choral groups where sopranos can gather and, yeah, there are musical revivals, but in the cultural shift, Broadway went to belting or to the model of Bernadette Peters’ little girl voice. Some musicals use the soprano voice for the young and pure (think Sweeney Todd), or the high soprano voice has been used to spoof the type as the actress descends in a bubble or caricatures a brilliant artist. Even the gentlest vibrato is suspect. Today, the high soprano has to shuffle a deck of vocal skills and might only reveal her lyric lightness in context with other styles in popular entertainment. Perhaps in our cynical, suspicious age, the high soprano voice cannot be taken seriously for its own sake as it was for centuries before us. But I think that there is a longing for it now, and I felt that the other night. Because we heard a beautiful one.

Focusing on early films is exactly what a high soprano can do in a cabaret program because the vocal type was taken very seriously then. Even so, Rice had to negotiate the traps. She did. But I wish she hadn’t had to.

She dedicated Monday’s performance to the late Kathryn Grayson, one of the last of the great film sopranos, who was both beautiful and beautifully trained. My friend didn’t know who Grayson was; I had to remind her of “Kiss Me Kate” and “Show Boat,” the obvious examples but certainly not the only ones. In only a decade after Grayson was making pictures, it would be difficult for a soprano to sing her songs straight, and roles for the soprano practically vanished (right, Julie?)

Rice avoided the high soprano trap in her program by injecting a considerable amount of humor into it, particularly in the first half. She set the scene by name dropping with “At the Moving Picture Ball” (Santly, 1920) and “The Vamp” (Gay, 1910), the latter a tribute to Theda Bara. Rice waved her arms and tried to get us to vamp, with marginal success. She swept through songs with a rich and vibrant voice and dazzling technique (“The Sheik of Araby,” “Hindusatan,” and “Paradise”) and kept punching the humor key, assumedly so we would listen to a voice that hasn’t lost one inch of sheen in the last decades.

We howled when she informed us that Rudolph Valentino had had both a condom and a candy named after him and that the humming in “Paradise” had, in its day (1932), been deemed too erotic for radio play. But when Rice actually sang “Paradise” (and she did so not two inches from me), her eyes took on a magical look and the slight giggling in the audience when she started to hum stopped as she continued singing. The humming was beautiful and no longer erotic or exotic but contained feelings that could not be expressed in words. The fun facts she’d told us so we would listen to the song didn’t interfere with her singing of it and could even have sent us on the wrong path. I am not sure if Rice intended that, but her singing had the effect of lulling us into hearing her seriously, of hearing the ways a soprano can uniquely affect our emotions, a secret that goes back for centuries and that many artists, Mozart for example, knew how to channel. Rice must have felt she should begin with humor (and with good reason) for the complex, now out of our silent planet songs she would sing, but in the process, alas, her singing and patter (both excellent in their own ways) became schizophrenic, and more alas, she managed to dismiss a brilliant period of film history as just a silly time even if her singing did not bear that out.

From those early films she moved to Walt Disney (as opposed to Disney) because, she said, all generations have been touched by his movies. Okay. I was startled because even though her between-songs explanations were intelligent and well researched, yet she said nothing about the importance of “Snow White,” arguably the most important film of 1937, as well as the biggest moneymaker. (And it made Gable cry!) Rice sang a medley with “I’m Wishing” and “Someday My Prince Will Come” beautifully (at the piano, Seth Weinstein sang a lovely echo that held not one bit of ridicule), as they deserved to be sung. I do not know why she felt it necessary to sing “The Age of Not Believing” before the “Snow White” material. For one thing, it’s from “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” (1971) which is not “Walt” Disney or early Hollywood. It’s a lovely song, but its loveliness makes us miss the bitterness of its words. Besides that, it had nothing to do with “Snow White” and Rice’s singing told us all we needed to feel in that medley.

Her passionate trio of “Temptation,” “Jalousie” and “Revenge” were hilariously received, and I loved her joke with her castanets (she revealed what we all knew; she was finger synching with percussionist Bobby Sher doing the diligence). But still, these were all strictly for funsies. Not that I don’t like laughing. But either knowingly or not, Rice was setting us up to get used to her voice, which is so lovely that you take it seriously even when you’re laughing at what she’s doing; she put her experience in comedy and drama to use, and she used the first part of her program as a strong shoulder to stand on for the second. For after skipping effortlessly through Victor Herbert’s “Italian Street Song,” every note shimmering and solid, she moved into Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald territory, so often wrongly spoofed. She didn’t spoof. She brought in a wonderful baritone, Mark Watson, for duets (“Wanting You” and “New Moon”). I could have listened for hours. They sang sincerely and beautifully. Then she handed us a brilliant interpretation of Kurt Weill’s “Pirate Jenny,” which by itself deserved an award.

She included a few other songs that were not really “Old Hollywood” (“What Is A Youth” from Zefferelli’s “Romeo and Juliet “and “My White Knight” from the stage production of The Music Man, what the film turned into “Being In Love”) but please forgive her because she mixed the latter with a breathtaking interpretation of “Bill” from “Show Boat.” Her final song, “Love Is Where You Find It,” came from one of those silly MGM toss- offs, 1948’s “The Kissing Bandit” starring Frank Sinatra and Kathryn Grayson, and here she infused the song with more feeling than the original did. Her encore was “Moon River,” set in the context of her father’s dreams, and sung with feeling and care.

Rice was smart enough to work with an expert team, which well figured in the success of this program. Her director was Joanne Yeoman; she shared the stage with the excellent Ritt Henn on bass and the wry Sher on drums. At the keyboard, as noted, was the wonderful Seth Weinstein, whose attention to detail is well known, and there were a few instances during the show when a lesser hand might have completely altered the proceedings, always a danger in those happy times when the singer gets a little too relaxed with the audience or becomes deeply involved in a song’s emotion. My only real quibble: I thought Rice’s targeting the song “He’s So Unusual” at Weinstein was unnecessary, and she didn’t carry the idea through anyway. It might have been an attempt to prove rapport with the pianist, something that’s almost a requirement in any show, but Weinstein proved his rapport by taking complete care of her and the other musicians.

What struck me is how beautiful Rice has kept her voice and how solid technically she was. She even let out a few very gentle, very, very high notes. This takes skill, faith, and talent, and that requires daily, dull homework. Her personality sparkles, and when she stopped the spoofing, she could convey deep, mature experience, and have I mentioned that I wanted to stay and listen for hours? I hope she gets more chances to use her splendid gifts and that she may be encouraged to be even braver in using them.

“Screen Gems—Songs of Old Hollywood” with Sarah Rice. JoAnn Yeoman, Director; Seth Weinstein, Piano; Ritt Henn, Bass; Bobby Sher, Drums. At The Laurie Beechman Theatre at the West End Café, 407 W 42nd Street. April 30 (last show!) at 8 PM. $20 cover. For reservations, call 212-695-6909.

Writer and singer Mary Sheeran has sung through several operas, song recitals, and cabarets, including several performances of her "Songs From the Balanchine Repertory." Her novel, Who Have the Power, an exploration of cultural conflict, feminism, and Native American history set on the American frontier, was published in 2006 after she earned a Master of Divinity degree from New York Theological Seminary. Her novel, Quest of the Sleeping Princess, which unfolds during a 1988 gala performance of the New York City Ballet, will be published later this year.

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