There must be two Lea DeLarias. One is a raunchy, cross-dressing comic who does lesbian jokes and daydreams in public about what she’d like to do with Angelina Jolie and a stick of butter. Considering the rising number of aspiring show-business talents who step off the bus every day at the Port Authority Terminal, how did a career so limited ever get this far?
From behind that butch pose, however, I suspect there has always been a sensitive torch singer in a red satin gown trying to get out. That’s the Lea DeLaria who emerges with the force, assurance and talent of a first-rate vocal stylist on a remarkable new Warner Brothers jazz CD called Play It Cool . I haven’t seen much of Ms. DeLaria, on or off the stage, and what I’ve seen has been underwhelming. As Hildy the lady cab driver in the ill-fated revival of On the Town , she made the rest of the taxi union look like a chorus of plum fairies wearing tutus. Playing Marryin’ Sam in the Encore Series concert version of Li’l Abner , she was Lou Costello in drag. Talk about a career with self-inflicted limitations. I met her once, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, where she was playing a goatherd. She seemed very pleasant.
That’s all I know, or wanted to know. Now, in a musical explosion from the head of Zeus, comes a new Lea DeLaria so hip and cool and full of swinging surprises I want to know her better. Can the troll under the drawbridge in a pinstriped suit be the same imaginative chick singer on this CD who turns Cy Coleman’s great ballad “With Every Breath I Take” into such a smoky anthem of erotic longing? Where did she learn to sing with so much verve and bounce and passion? Why has she waited so long to share her secret? Caramba! On the cover, she even sips a Cosmo wearing pearls!
Play It Cool is exactly what she does, on 11 tracks that make you long for more, with almost as many voices. Turning the dark subtext of Stephen Sondheim’s blistering “Ballad of Sweeney Todd” into a fracturous up-tempo arrangement that really jams is pure genius. The entire song takes on the attitude of an underworld Brechtian babe who doesn’t care how much pessimism shows, as long as it also swings. On “Cool,” a finger-popping Sondheim collaboration with Leonard Bernstein from West Side Story that is rarely performed out of context, she lounge-lizards her way through a slower, lazier tempo for maximum street savvy, like a been-around sister wising up a younger kid headed for trouble. The great Cy Coleman-Carolyn Leigh showstopper “I’ve Got Your Number” from Little Me is pure, straight-ahead jazz singing, bending notes, phrasing behind the beat and slamming a homer in the last chorus. Ms. DeLaria does it all with awesome ease, as though she grew up paying her dues on one-night stands with Kenton or Basie. Whatever she’s on, I want some, too.
The selections are all jazz interpretations of Broadway show tunes of varying quality and, like most debut efforts, it suffers from occasional carelessness. Two songs by the pretentious Michael John LaChiusa, both from The Wild Party , further demonstrate why that abysmal Broadway flop was such a disaster. “Welcome to My Party” does not work out of context and “Lowdown-Down” makes no sense at all, even after several repeat plays. A number of talented performers I respect, including Audra McDonald and Adam Guettel, have a fan-club thing about Mr. LaChiusa that eludes the rest of the theatergoing public and mystifies me completely. Ms. DeLaria is too good to waste her time on such phony crap as the sophomoric imagery in a song like “Lowdown-Down.”
The thing is, it doesn’t matter whether you like the songs or not. She sings them all superbly, in ways that are always just a little bit different, backed by a meticulously selected group of dynamic all-star jazz personnel and arrangers. It’s positively amazing what she does with second-rate material. I listened to “Straight to the Top,” her genuinely funny sendup of glitzy Las Vegas opening numbers, in which her socko voice and timing blend so perfectly with the brass ensemble that you can hardly tell where she leaves off and the four saxophones take over. The singing is tough and sometimes emotionless, but there is real technique here, and the entire CD is intensely, solidly musical. On “Straight to the Top,” the campy humor, cheeky asides and pulsating beat are so reminiscent of Frances Faye at the height of her career that I played it five times, getting a new thrill every time, before I discovered it was written by the dreadful Tom Waits. Likewise, “Losing My Mind”–the dopiest ballad Mr. Sondheim ever wrote–finds its way into a daringly experimental, bohemian Left Bank bistro arrangement suitable for Piaf (or, more appropriately, Juliette Greco). Even the corny Parisian accordion sounds fresh. The day I don’t mind a lousy accordion is the day I have my head examined. That day is here. With this CD, I find myself inexplicably delirious over Lea DeLaria. Amazing how much farther you can go on octane instead of diesel.
Tony Danza Finds His True Calling
Tony Danza has been a boxer, a sitcom star, and is currently playing a troubled attorney on Family Law . He missed his calling: He should have been a song-and-dance man. It’s never too late. Currently celebrating his 50th birthday in a charming nightclub act at Feinstein’s at the Regency (through June 30), he’s finally getting it right. Displaying a versatility that seems surprising coming from a dese-and-dose paisano from Brooklyn, he investigates the changes that have occurred during his 50 years on the planet with humor and zest. Rodgers and Hart would turn over in their graves if they could hear what he does to “Blue Moon” in a doo-wop style, but Mr. Danza’s boundless energy and boyish enthusiasm for the kind of music he grew up on in Brooklyn wins you over. Then he surprises you by playing “Take the A Train” on the piano with assured jazz licks. He tackles a haunting chorus of “Lush Life” on the cornet (hasn’t mastered that yet, but he’s trying). He shows family photos, tells funny stories about his experiences on Taxi and Who’s the Boss? , and taps a mean triple-time step in the style of Fred Astaire. He sings ballads with warmth and feeling and just the right vibrato on the ends of phrases. He knocks himself out doing a frenzied impression of Louis Prima while his quartet plays Sam Butera and the Witnesses. He even tackles the Rodgers and Hammerstein “Soliloquy” from Carousel . Everything is so puppy-dog sincere that by the time it’s over, the audience feels like old friends. Tony Danza is living proof that 50 years old is just the beginning.
Jim Caruso, Master Clown
Jim Caruso is a transplanted Texan whose witty new act at Arci’s (every Monday through July) is called Laughing Matters . It could just as easily be tagged Let Me Entertain You . With style and dash, he entertains musically and makes you laugh yourself silly at the same time. He has the razor-sharp humor of a master clown, his polished singing investigates a far-ranging program of material, and there’s a surprise around every bend on his Yellow Brick Road. Accompanied by Johnny Rodgers, a finger-popping pianist with range and style who also writes challenging songs, sings terrifically and looks like Huckleberry Finn, Mr. Caruso fearlessly barges right into everything from Kay Thompson to Hank Williams to the Kander and Ebb show tune “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup,” which he updates to a broadside against the always-multiplying Starbucks, where you need a second mortgage for a mocha-chip frappuccino latte. On “Shy” he hits all the notes Carol Burnett shrieked in Once Upon a Mattress , and even adds a few of his own in special lyrics by Amanda Green. The ossified hillbilly hit “Hey Good Lookin’” is turned into a creamy love song for a crooning cowpoke in a Stetson by Armani. He’s hip enough to appeal to the Cabaret Nazis and still know who Dave Frishberg is. And let’s face it, he’s probably the only person in show business who has ever done a musical tribute to Dick Van Dyke, a bizarre idea that might be positively alarming were it not so deliberately hilarious. There’s more, including a wild arrangement of “The Steam Is on the Beam” that cries out for a zoot suit with a reet pleet, and a downright hold-onto-your-funnybone-cause-it’s-headed-toward-Tallahassee version of Bette Midler’s zany “Otto Titsling,” about one Mr. Otto Titsling, “inventor and Kraut,” an underappreciated hero in the war on anatomical fashion who created the “over-the-shoulder boulder-holder” for bodacious ta-tas. It’s a rich, rewarding, action-packed evening of calculated madness and music, with enough fertile imagination to grow zinnias in and no room for boredom. Good thing, too. You need courage, self-confidence and a lot of talent to get away with some of the material Mr. Caruso chooses to tease. It also helps if you are just a little bit insane.
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