Monday, June 22, 2009

Review of It Was a Very Good Year at Bristol Riverside

First published in Edge Philadelphia:

At the start of Bristol Riverside Theatre’s current cabaret “It Was a Very Good Year,” Artistic Director Keith Baker welcomed us to the 1950’s by drawing some stark comparisons between that era and today.

“Those were very good years,” he began, playing to the audience who experienced them. Coke cost a nickel, a gallon of gas set you back 23 cents. People enjoyed romance rather than relationships, marriage lasted forever, and before a couple tied the knot, they went on dates, rather than ‘just hooking up’.”

Strangely, the set list included “Run Around Sue,” (about a girl who never hooked-up) and “Love and Marriage” a sonnet that sincerely sings the praises of marital bliss.

Sarcasm aside, in most cases, the song selection at BRT proved just how much good music the era produced. The evening opened on a medley of popular hits—from “Rock Around the Clock” and “La Bamba” to “Fever” and “Fly Me to the Moon”—before turning into an evening of mostly solo performances chosen to display the virtuosity of the four singers.

Lisa Mindelle imbued her pep-squad leader’s cute and earnest voice with a girlish charm on innocent numbers like “Where the Boys Are” and later displayed a country quality in “Tennessee Waltz.” And with his perfectly coiffed hair and Cleaver-esque good looks, John D. Smitherman reminded of the class President, one who didn’t draw any resentment in being voted “most likely to succeed.” With his voice—full of butter and honey—and masterful vocal technique, he could easily afford to ham up numbers like “It’s Now or Never,” shaking his legs wildly and curling his lip up like Elvis. Later, a commanding rendition of the Mario Lanza landmark hit “Be My Love” showed a sonorous elegance rarely seen outside of opera halls.

In stark contrast, Demetria Joyce Bailey’s chocolate-covered-cherry of a mezzo put enough seductive smoke into her numbers (“Fever”, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”) that I got lung cancer just listening. But hey, if you’re going to be lulled into the long sleep, what better voice to sing a lullaby, and if anything could rock you back out of it, it’s her brazen rendition of “Mambo Italiano” that kicks off Act II. Anthony D’Amato soulfulness showed incredible versatility, soaring effortlessly through Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” and making “The Great Pretender” reminiscent of an 80’s power ballad.

The band matched the singers’ talents, and like an era when this happened often, even surpassed them at times. Violinist Claudia Pellegrini plucked the through line on her violin to provide the best part of a vocally uneven “Unchained Melody,” and guitarist Neil Nemetz’s strident “Pipeline” reminded why it wasn’t once uncommon to flip through radio stations and hear four minutes of instrumentals.

But while the performers all shone vocally (for the most part; some stretched their instruments a bit), the evening strung the songs together with no semblance of why one followed the next, and with one exception, imparted no sense of narrative or atmospheric mood to the evening. On “It Was a Very Good Year,” lighting designer Kate Ashton painted the stage in visual hues that shifted like the seasons through the eras of one man’s life, and Baker’s tender singing conveyed an almost Proustian recollecting, full of sorrow and longing for days gone by.

Otherwise, the program’s deceptive title played like a night of “Here’s some songs from the 50’s and 60’s. Enjoy!” And it did so while totally lacking a bandstand like atmosphere. I wondered “why am I in a theatre, rather than a hall with a dance floor?”

Similarly, except for a few individual inventions, Baker’s direction failed to structure any skits, play-acting, or interactions between the performers or audience that would make the evening seem like a cabaret. Smitherman attempted to rectify this deficit on most of this numbers, handing a handkerchief to a woman in the audience, or combing his hair as he sang. But while he went a bit overboard with the deep lunges up the steps on “Kansas City,” the other three singers not doing anything—or D’Amato often singing his songs to himself—made Smitherman’s theatrical touches into an oddity.

Except for the too thin ties, Robyn N. Watson’s costumes don’t really reflect the era; the men’s chinos and button-down shirts and simple women’s dresses look more business casual than 50’s bobby-soxer. For the most part, the audience delighted in the evening, letting out gasps and nudges of recognition that recalled hearing these songs for the first time when they came out. Thankfully, the era gave us a lot of good music to enjoy just hearing.

Bristol Riverside Theatre presents “It Was a Very Good Year.” Written and directed by Keith Baker, runs until June 28. Tickets and information at

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