Memory is a powerful thing in music. When I was young, one of my first exposures to musical theatre was the 1993 Broadway revival cast recording of Guys and Dolls. Mostly known for introducing an unsuspecting world to the force of nature that is Nathan Lane, its highly colorful, stylish take on the Damon Runyon landscape of the classic musical is credited with redefining the show for the entire generation since. Peter Gallagher lent his buttery voice to Sky Masterson as well. (His caterpillar eyebrows, being invisible in the audio medium, went unnoticed to me.)
Most distinctly though, there was Miss Adelaide, and Faith Prince. She simply was the character, which is saying something considering it was such a sharply characterized, different take on the role than anything the show had previously seen. Utterly over the top and yet completely sincere, Prince was unmistakable in the role, and spawned the basis for likely every performance of the role since.
So, of course, hearing Faith Prince live and in person, and opening with the crowd-pleasing choice of “Adelaide’s Lament”, the little boy within me perked up…”It’s her! It’s the poi-son from the CD!” It’s a visceral reaction. Deep. Powerful.
Throughout her set, performed Halloween night at the Terrace Theatre of the Kennedy Center (is there any better night for a legendary character actress to be showcased?), Ms. Prince was completely emotionally available to her willing audience. Prince is a comedian by nature – always quick with a well delivered quip and a pop of her enormous, expressive eyes – and yet, one couldn’t help but notice that she may as well have been on the brink of tears at any given moment, so connected was her storytelling and singing.
I tend to take a moment to gush about impeccable skill and technique when writing about the big stars, but with Prince, it goes beyond that. Perhaps because hers was one of the first belting voices I ever heard, all I can say is that she sounds like un-afflicted musical theatre. This is just what comes out when you do it well. Never too big, never too small.
A great example of this is “Somewhere That’s Green”, which she performed after sharing the story of how she had to turn down originating the role of Audrey in the original production thanks to a well-paying industrial gig she couldn’t afford to drop (oof…we’ve all been there, Faith). “Green” is one of those songs that’s alternately big and small, clever and tear-jerkingly sincere, and when Prince sings it, it simply is. While listening to her sing, there is no possible other “right” way for the song to be done…such is her power of personal application to the material.
Other highlights from the set included perennial cabaret favorite “Suddenly Seymour”, sung with pianist and music director Alex Rybeck, full of delicious 80’s rock licks that took the older-skewing audience a hair too long to realize were meant to be funny (she got the point to them eventually).
A significant portion of the evening was dedicated to a story about a regional production of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, its absent-minded star, and her chance meeting with a flirtatious trumpet player. This man, Larry Lunetta, would become her husband, who joined Ms. Prince on several pieces as well, including “Man With a Horn”, “If I Were a Bell”, and “The World Goes ‘Round”, and there was ample chemistry between his detailed, improvisational runs and his star-wife’s vocals. “The Boy From,” one of her encores, and a song I somehow managed to have never heard before, is a playground for a natural funny lady like her, and proved to be another easy high point of the evening.
Most important to this, and really, most star cabarets, was the effortless presence of Ms. Prince. In fact, I would venture that only since regularly covering the Barbara Cook Spotlight Series do I truly understand what “stage presence” really is. Faith Prince simply is when onstage. Choices come out, with the exact amount of effort which they require. There is no strain. There is pure comfort. She makes it look utterly easy, the hard work hidden carefully under a ruthlessly simplified, “what is needed” performance, “Tattooed Boy in Memphis” being a particularly great example of this.
To be inspired by such a personal relationship to material and to hear the human story behind the larger-than-life icon is the great joy of attending cabaret. Without a doubt, Faith Prince left nothing wanting in this latest event from a treasure of a local series.
The little boy with the cast recording would be very happy.
Barbara Cook’s Spotlight: Faith Prince was performed on October 31st at The Kennedy Center.