MARY CLEERE HARAN
Feinstein’s at Loews Regency
540 Park Avenue at 61st Street
Tuesday, Oct. 23, to Saturday, Oct. 27
212-339-4095 for reservations
Before I get into the serious, depressing stuff, baby let me light your fire. At Feinstein’s at Loews Regency, one of my favorite singers, Mary Cleere Haran, is staging a glorious musical tribute to one of her favorite singers (and mine), the one and only Doris von Kappelhoff. Miss it only at the risk of being a little less sophisticated in life. Of course, if you don’t already know that Doris von Kappelhoff is Doris Day, then you already are. Catch up. Her melodious songs and sunny disposish have never been more desperately welcome than they are today, and Mary is the perfect lady of taste, imagination and charm to do them justice. Resurfacing from the cocoon of a cabaret hiatus that has kept her off the bandstand too long for my taste, she has turned, once again, into a moonlight butterfly nourished by a pink gel. Nothing could be finer for us all.
Before Oscar Levant called her a professional virgin, before four husbands and Mary Baker Eddy took their toll on her peace of mind, before rock ’n’ roll wiped out the Great American Songbook she loved to sing, and before she retired from her unique career as the No. 1 female box office movie star in the universe, Doris Day sounded like what I expect to hear if I ever get to heaven. A series of forgettable sex comedies produced by her third husband finally reduced that career to a Tinseltown footnote that doesn’t begin to honor her greatness. Fortunately, the memory is still alive and swinging on DVDs of Day’s early Warner Brothers musicals with scores by geniuses like Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn, Harry Warren, Ralph Blane and others; countless albums that have become collector’s items; cabaret acts like Mary Cleere Haran’s; and CD’s like Sue Raney’s distinguished new tribute to Doris that is one of the best recordings of 2007. At Feinstein’s, you get a tasty Reader’s Digest condensed version of why this is important.
Today, at 83, the reclusive Doris spends a lot of time in her house by the sea in Carmel, Calif., in bed, sipping green tea and reading books on Christian Science, divorced from everything that doesn’t bark. She doesn’t listen to music or watch movies, especially her own. Every attempt to honor her at film festival events or concert-hall tributes is met with a firm no. So let’s be thankful to Ms. Haran for keeping her memory alive. She couldn’t possibly sing everything in the vast Doris Day catalog (she’s only got an hour!), but she makes every minute count. Material from movies (“I’ll Never Stop Loving You” from Love Me or Leave Me, “Put ’Em in a Box, Tie ’Em with a Ribbon” from her first film, Romance on the High Seas) and hit records (the novelty ditty “Shanghai”) is cleverly blended with sad biographical information that formed a dramatic counterpoint to her fresh, vitamin C appeal on the screen. The personal hardships (parental divorce, the train crash that shattered her dreams of a dance career, learning to sing along with Ella Fitzgerald records on the radio while her broken bones healed, four miserable marriages, the death of her only son from skin cancer) often seem to outweigh the high points (the segue from Les Brown’s band vocalist to world adulation) of a life spent in tears. Distilling the essence of a spirited muse who was her own worst enemy, Ms. Haran is witty enough to eschew sentimentality, even when she appears on the verge of tears herself. As with all of her shows, she works in parallels to her own life, but this time wisely keeps them to a minimum. Best of all, she keeps the music coming with the aid of pianist Don Rebic, ace bass player Chip Jackson, and the sensitive guitar clusters of Jim Hirschman. Two Rodgers and Hart masterpieces from Jumbo, “Little Girl Blue” and “Why Can’t I?” (sung in the film as a touching duet with Martha Raye), are the evening’s highlights. “Sentimental Journey” should satisfy the most demanding Doris Day fanatics. Even the calcified corn of “Que Sera, Sera” is tolerable, although I would have preferred “It’s Magic” or a few underrated gems like “Blame My Absent-Minded Heart,” “It’s You or No One” and “I’ll String Along with You.” But why carp? This is choice stuff, and a bountiful harvest of music worth hearing again. Doris sang just about every important song written during the 40’s and 50’s, so you have to draw the line somewhere. I could never draw a line around Mary Cleere Haran. Singing Doris Day finds her at the top of her game, but no matter what she does, she always reminds me of the old days when preview audiences filled in cards and dropped them into lobby boxes in movie palaces like Grauman’s Chinese—cards that read “Super-duper!” and “Give us more like this!” When I am fortunate enough to share some quality time with her vocal stylings in the candlelight of an intimate cabaret, I feel the same way.