Tuesday, June 13, 2006

American Popular Song 101

By Judith

She could have sung all night, and we’d have begged for more. For over 30 years Joan Morris and William Bolcom (married for almost that long) have been wowing audiences with their performances of American popular songs from before the turn of the 20th century to contemporary pieces by Mr. Bolcom. And wow us they did with their recital at the McKnight Theater in Saint Paul on Saturday night (6/10/06). The appearance was part of the week-long Saint Paul Summer Song Festival.

The McKnight Theater, with slightly more than 300 seats, is the perfect setting for performances such as these; the acoustics allow the artists to sing without amplification and the intimate surroundings let the audience be drawn in to the action. Seated about halfway back, we were able to understand every lyric and appreciate each gesture and facial expression.

The program began with songs from the early 1900s including “torch songs” by Ralph Rainger, “My Castle on the Nile” by J. Rosamond Johnson and “On the Banks of the Wabash Far Away” by Paul Dresser (Theodore Dreiser’s brother). Mr. Bolcom would introduce each song and perhaps share an anecdote about the composer before Miss Morris would beautifully interpret it with her rich, mellow mezzo-soprano and gifted acting ability.

Moving on in the century, the couple regaled us with “Hit the Road”, made famous by their friend Eubie Blake and “Say So!” with music by George Gershwin and lyrics by Ira Gershwin and P. G. Wodehouse! And also writing with Wodehouse was Jerome Kern with “Cleopatterer.” Irving Berlin was represented by the lovely “Always” and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” (You could almost see Fred Astaire moving across the stage.)

Richard Rodgers partnered with Lorenz Hart before Oscar Hammerstein, and I think, produced better songs. Now, Oklahoma happens to be one of my all-time favorite musicals, but I enjoy the sophistication, the wittiness and near-perfect word manipulation of Hart: “Beans could get no keener reception in a beanery; bless our Mountain Greenery Home.” “Glad to Be Unhappy” from 1936 was the Rodgers and Hart song Miss Morris sang this evening and gave it just the right blend of sadness and irony.

Cole Porter, another with a great gift for lyric, penned a song called “The Tale of the Oyster” and a cautionary tale it is. Miss Morris squirmed and wriggled and grimaced and managed to keep her dignity through it all.

At the beginning of the second half Mr. Bolcom played a solo piece of his own composition, “Graceful Ghost.” He is such a perfect accompanist – supportive and contributory, but not overpowering – that you forget what a talented pianist he is. Later in the program Miss Morris sang three of his Cabaret songs.

There was plenty of humor in the program, too, as with Yip Harburg’s “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady,” made famous by one Groucho Marx. The last of three encores was saving the best for last – a wicked rendition of Kurt Weill meets Julie Andrews with Miss Morris imitating Lotte Lenya singing “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. There was even a bit of Pirate Jenny in there with a vision of “the black freighter” appearing over the top of the Alps.

If you’ve ever wondered what people did before television, radio, and – heaven forbid – before blogging, this concert answered the question. Mr. Bolcom and Miss Morris invited us into their parlor and entertained us with a delightful evening of story and song. After having lived and worked together for so many years, the two are as natural on stage as if they were in the home of friends. And judging by the reception they received, they were, indeed, among friends.

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