This Tough Moll Got a Voice on Her
Brainy and beautiful, Mary Cleere Haran would be worth the cover charge even if she didn’t also possess one of the dreamiest singing voices since Marilyn Monroe. Fortunately, her attributes are many, and they are all fusing in a combustible entertainment package that gives you top value for your investment in a bright and tangy new act called “Pennies From Heaven” at the Algonquin’s fabled Oak Room (through Nov. 15). She is literally jamming them in, and no wonder. She is simply, in a word, sensational.
Ms. Haran, like me, has been shaped and influenced by old movies. In this witty, well-researched act, she concentrates on the films of the 1930′s-a treasure chest of dumb blondes and dumber plots that made it more fun to be broke, homeless and depressed in the Depression. As she points out in her study of Busby Berkeley production numbers, orphans, shopgirls and gold diggers, people may have been penniless, but there was always enough spare change to go to the movies. And when you got there, everyone on the screen sipped vermouth cassis and dodged machine gun bullets without spilling a drop.
Although Ms. Haran’s father was only 7 years old when the stock market crashed, and times were often rough, he told his children all about the movies that saved him from despair. Much later, when she was growing up Irish Catholic in San Francisco, it was her 9-year-old sister who was glued to Warner Brothers gangster flicks. Mary was more interested in boys and cheerleader tryouts and high school proms, but her sister knew where Sing Sing was and how many of the Dead End Kids were actually dead. Only now, in retrospect, and with the aid of her local video store, has this late bloomer become an expert on that dazzling age of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart. Using her passion for dolls and molls, lugs and thugs, and other 30′s nostalgia, she has needlepointed a rich and rapturous act about the times that changed America, weaving events and places and themes together with the songs of that decade. You go away sated, but feeling trim and terrific.
From a jaunty “Breezin’ Along With the Breeze” to every hobo’s happy theme song “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” she demonstrates how smiling through the tears became a national pastime. A highlight is the obscure ballad “When My Ship Comes In,” which Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson wrote for Eddie Cantor to sing in Kid Millions in 1934. Then she blends “Night in Manhattan,” a Texas Guinan speak-easy centerpiece to end them all, into an astonishing ballad arrangement of “42nd Street” unlike anything I’ve heard before. It takes courage, and the talent and musical savvy to back it up, to turn the traditionally bouncy “Lullaby of Broadway” into an actual lullaby light as blancmange and soft enough to sing a child to sleep. And the surprises never end. Saluting the ladies of the silver screen, she imitates such 30′s icons as Ruby Keeler, put-up-your-dukes Joan Blondell, and Jean Arthur, who was the quintessential wisecracking working girl.
Accompanying Ms. Haran is the literate, tasteful pianist-arranger-singer and Oscar-nominated film composer Richard Rodney Bennett, who not only provides lush chords for her creamy voice to languish in, but who joins her in an undulatingly suggestive duet on “Sweet and Slow,” a Harry Warren-Al Dubin song. On everything from a marshmallow-coated “I’m in the Mood for Love” to a slap-happy “Pick Yourself Up,” Ms. Haran explores every musical nuance of the decade before World War II. She croons. She swoons. She swings. She’s got musical wings. She calls this perfect act “Pennies from Heaven,” but the gems she offers are more like gold nuggets from the United States Mint.
A Tom Cruise From Down Under
More singers: Twenty-four-year-old David Campbell may be a case of too much, too soon. This Tom Cruise from Down Under has a big voice, a clean-cut countenance, a self-assured demeanor and a spectacularly naïve ignorance of the kinds of songs that should be sung in a posh, expensive, glamorous and exclusive New York supper club like Rainbow & Stars. Landing a three-week gig there-especially at a time when so many seasoned veterans can’t get in the door-is a feather in his cap. But a classy room full of sophisticated high rollers weaned on Cole Porter, Harold Arlen and Rodgers & Hart is not the place to sing “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
To be fair, this young man has talent. And growing up in South Australia, he had the added advantage of a mother who played a lot of Johnny Mathis records. Unfortunately, he sounds too much like the quavering, tremulous Mr. Mathis on ballads and too much like every other noisy pop singer bridging the gap between show tunes and rock on faster tempos. Like most kids who like songs but lack the life experience to interpret them, he thinks “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” is a sophisticated standard. I don’t want to seem churlish about this because I believe he has enough intelligence and curiosity about music to learn and grow. His first six songs in this outing aim high. (Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Nearness of You” and Stephen Sondheim’s “Not a Day Goes By” are two of the better entries in his repertoire.) And there’s a nostalgic tribute to fellow Aussie Peter Allen that is as rhythmic as it is sincere. But it’s all downhill from there.
One problem all of these young singers in the chasm called cabaret succumb to unwisely is that they all have buddies who think they are songwriters, and they insist on introducing their friends’ songs whether they’re worth singing or not. Mr. Campbell wastes a lot of valuable time singing a number of these adolescent, immature songs, to no avail. In his earlier New York engagements, down at the Greenwich Village club Eighty-Eights, he tried out some of these humdrum songs with no danger of damage. Rainbow & Stars requires a more challenging repertoire. With so many raw materials, it would be nice if someone could come along with the taste and vision to shape them into a polished product that doesn’t sound like it just came off an assembly line. I admire Mr. Campbell’s passion and nice-guy demeanor, but taking New York’s cabaret world by storm (which is what I wrote when I saw him down at Eighty-Eights early this year) is a far cry from conquering the rarefied air 65 floors above Rockefeller Center.
For headier stuff, experience Lynne Charnay, who has been enchanting the crowds on Monday nights at Danny’s on West 46th Street in the heart of Restaurant Row. Ms. Charnay was a staple on every musical menu back in the 1960′s. Those were the days when Mabel Mercer reigned, and great performers held the center spot in intimate boîtes Dorothy Kilgallen’s column called watering holes. After decades of retirement, this soignée lady is back, to great acclaim, with the kind of hip, fresh repertoire only a seasoned pro who has lived can sing knowledgeably. Her songs are funny, sad and wise, she sings the lyrics with a dusty no-nonsense approach, and you always learn something valuable in her presence. Old evergreens like Billy Strayhorn’s and Roger Schore’s haunting “Bittersweet” and Bart Howard’s poignant “Where Do You Think You’re Going” find themselves rubbing elbows with bright contemporary baubles by Portia Nelson and John Wallowitch. “Luncheonette,” by the always brilliant Francesca Blumenthal, is a nostalgic lament for the long, lost days of counter food and waitresses named Maisie and Iris, of pimento cheese on toast, hot chocolate that is hot and meatloaf that is not. I remember them well. “On the Streets of Paree,” another Francesca Blumenthal newcomer, has wonderfully satiric lyrics about the French (“They’re so amorous on the buses/ They sin on the cinema line/ The natives won’t make any fusses/ They save their complaints for the wine”). On the night I caught this delectable act, Ms. Charnay sang 21 songs, and there wasn’t a dud in the bunch. One tires of the arrogance of youth and all those colorless, soporific songs they sing. Give me a mature woman with a sultry voice no longer encumbered by the blush of schoolgirl know-nothingness. If sauce and seasoning are your ingredients of choice, Lynne Charnay is the gourmet special you’ve been hungering for.