Sometimes, you are sitting in the theatre and magic happens, and Wednesday night at Cabaret Carousel at Source: Blues and Ballads there was magic to spare. I thought I was in musical heaven! From the toe- tapping, finger-snapping opening of “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” to “Summertime” to “Mr. Bojangles”, this was a Capital Fringe Festival show that I wish would never end. And, if I had time, I would slide in to see this Friday’s 6:30 PM and its last performance this Saturday at 6 PM.
“Theatre is perhaps the most collaborative arena of work there is and producing Blues and Ballads was definitely a truly collaborative process. This is the second time I have had the immeasurable pleasure of working with Detra Battle, Stanley Webber and Stanley Thurston. The show came together with ease, and the artists chose their own songs. My job as director was just to give a framework for them to work within and explore their own artistry. Working with Marianne Meadows (lighting design), Osbel Pena (scenic design), and Brandon Adams (stage manager) was a joy.
Carla Hubner, In Series Executive Director, gave all of the artists free reign to explore and express themselves. Because of the dedication, professionalism, and pure chemistry among everyone, the rehearsal process was very smooth and very short. I left rehearsal smiling every time, not only because of my wonderful colleagues, but also because of the wonderful music”.
And what is so special about Blues and Ballads?
The show is a collection of some of the most beautiful songs ever written in the American Songbook – songs we all know, written by some of America’s best composers – Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, George Gershwin, Meredith Wilson and Anthony Newley, all performed by three exceptional artists – soprano Detra Battle and baritone Stanley Webber, both accompanied by a pianist whose fingers ooze “JOY” – Stanley Thurston.
When Detra Battle sang the rarely performed Duke Ellington masterpiece “Come Sunday”, which is not an easy song to sing, she sang it with so much emotion that when her lower vibrato rang out, and as she worked her way up and down the scales, I thought the great Marian Anderson was reincarnated. Detra followed with Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child”, and wrung every bit of emotion out it. In the middle of the song, when she looked at the audience, and said “Guess what baby? They don’t come around anymore” elicited laughs from the cheering audience. Detra’s powerful rendition of “Summertime” brought more cheers and “Bravas”.
According to Detra, “The arrangement of “Summertime” by Stanley Thurston put me in a jazzy mood. I enjoyed the fresh flavor of taking well know phrases and making them different and exciting”.
Then it was Stanley Webber‘s turn to strut his stuff. Stanley is a song stylist extraordinaire with a glow and smile to kill. Snapping his fingers and clapping his hands and getting the audience to join along him in the snapping and clapping, Stanley began his interpretation of songs made famous by the great hoofer, singer, the legendary entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr., and in this cabaret, Stanley sang arrangements written by Sammy’s musical arranger George Rhodes. These arrangements were jazzy and cool, and hot, and that’s how Stanley sang “Without a Song”, “On a Clear Day”, “Keeping Out of Mischief”, and “You’re Nobody ‘til Somebody Loves You”.
According to Stanley, “Ever since I can remember people have made this comment, “has anyone ever told you look like Sammy Davis Jr.?”. Strangers have literally walked up to not even knowing that I was a singer mind you, and have made this comment about me. So after at least a hundred comments I decided to go for it. I compiled a group of songs produced a tribute show to Sammy Davis Jr. Truly a daunting task but it has been artistically and musically rewarding.
I soon discovered through research of recordings and video archives that this catalogue of song arrangements was musically rich. Everything from story telling to anecdotal messages about life, love and pain, coupled with timeless classic tunes makes Sammy Davis Jr.’s musical era unmatchable.
George Rhodes was the genius behind many of the song arrangements used by Davis. Not many artists today use the breadth and width of instrumentation used for these songs. Strings, brass, woodwinds, with full percussion all playing to edge of a melodic and rhythmic fervor draped over a warmly luscious harmonic structure. WOW man! And the wide range of notes that Sammy uses are always packed full of energy. Edgy and daring, hard for anyone to match, but I think I have made a good go at it. Especially in songs like “Without a Song” and “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Love You”.”
Accompanist Stanley Thurston chimed in, “I miniaturized the big band arrangements of George Rhodes to the piano keyboard.”
“I’m better looking than Sammy”, Stanley joked with a wide grin. The audience ate it up! I hate to admit it, but Stanley was right.
“No musical tribute to Sammy would be complete without “Mr. Bojangles” a song that Sammy himself said scared him because he could see his own life, past, present and future, running parallel to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson,” Stanley says.
When Stanley sang and danced and whistled his way through “Mr. Bojangles”, he didn’t just sing it, he lived it. You saw Bojangles dancing in his prime, and you heard the older hoofer lamenting about the sad years at the end of his life. It was a moving and heartwarming performance. Sammy would have been proud.
And, when he performed Anthony Newley’s show-stopping “What Kind of Fool Am I”, I felt like Anthony Newley had his hand on Stanley’s shoulder smiling, and saying “Yeah!”. I remember watching Anthony Newley perform the song on the Ed Sullivan show, and I saw Sammy Davis, Jr. perform the song in a filmed production of “Stop The World I Want To Get Off!”, and I never thought I’d hear anyone sing it any better – until Wednesday night.
Stanley Thurston got a chance to tickle the ivories and show what a true artist can do with his piano, while enlightening the audience with his smooth, rhythmic rendition of Duke Ellington’s “I’m Beginning to See The Light”. It was smooth as velvet.
And, then it was Detra swaying her hips and dragging up an audience member, who joined her in a dance around the stage, to Jerome Kern’s “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man”. You couldn’t help lovin’ the way Detra performed that Showboat classic.
To end her final set, there was a gorgeous rendition of “Till There Was You” from Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. I’m telling you, it was the most beautiful performance of this song I have ever heard. I still hear Detra’s final “Till There Was You” in my head, and that alone is worth the price of admission.
Detra told me, “With “Till there Was You”, which I have never sung before this cabaret, my hope was that audiences would relate to the powerful meaning of the words. The discipline of practicing this song was very challenging, because it’s a different style or genre for me, but because of my love for music and my love to sing, I enjoyed the challenging of making this classic my own”. And did she ever make it her own! Record it please, Detra!
And to end this wonderful trip to musical heaven, Detra and Stanley choo-chooed their way through Billy Staryhorn’s “Take The A Train” and Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse’s “Sweet Beginnings”. What a sweet beginning to my first cabaret in the Fringe Festival. So take the Metro train to see this delightful evening of jazzy ballads, showcasing the talents by three of the In Series favorite artists.