Review: Brian Stokes Mitchell

This show is both richly emotional and musically intricate and sophisticated, which perfectly serves Brian Stokes Mitchell’s stage persona. It’s also very playful, as it’s title “Plays With Music” suggests. It’s also somewhat lush, augmenting a jazz quartet, led by Ted Firth, with a string quartet.

He opens with “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” with just enough spikiness in the string section to remind you that show biz ain’t always easy. That spikiness was heightened even more, to bracing and funny effect, for the number “Gesticulate” from Kismet, which Stokes put fully over the top with appropriately grand gestures.

The next couple of numbers, sung in a medley, are all about deep feelings coupled with equally deep ambivalence. His version of “By Myself” from The Band Wagon is the grandest I’ve heard this side of Judy Garland’s epic rendition. The other song in the medley, “I Won’t Send Roses” from Mack & Mabel, is about an unromantic man warning someone he’s no prize when it comes to love. Stokes plays it with such precision that every bit of melancholy becomes achingly clear.

For “The Man I Love,” Mitchell touchingly “plays gay,” portraying a lonely guy yearning for love – he gives it an almost adolescent innocence. He follows that up by playing several different characters in Company‘s “Getting Married Today,” including the wigged out bride-not-to-be Amy, who sings some of Sondheim’s fastest, trickiest lyrics, which Stokes dashes of with aplomb.

He wraps the act by taking a turn towards optimistic patriotism, which he sees as an important tonic to the dark forces working in today’s world. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Marilyn Maye

This lady hits the stage like a ball of fire! Ella Fitzgerald once called Marilyn Maye “the greatest white female singer in the world.” That’s no exaggeration; she may be the only singer alive who combines a great vocal instrument with interpretative flair and savoir faire equal to Ella’s own. There are younger singers who might posses more powerful voices but I can think of no other singer who possesses Maye’s combination of interpretive ability, rhythmic verve, and vocal range – at 89, her voice is the envy of singers 50 years her junior.

This “saloon singer” has a fantastic rapport with her audience, singing them beloved songs from a startlingly wide variety of genres. These shows at the Metropolitan Room take full advantage of this facet of her talent. Marilyn asks her audience to pick her “Marilyn By Request” set list by making song suggestions when making their reservations. It makes for an evening filled with surprises, and plenty of energy from both sides of the footlights.

Musical director Ted Firth is the perfect match for this footloose kind of approach, combining a broad knowledge of popular music with snappy, sophisticated jazz chops. Maye exquisitely tailors her style of singing to the individual song, smooth for the ballads, swinging for the standards, and truly gritty for the bluesier numbers. And always, always fully at home in – and totally committed to – the music.

Maye appeared on Johnny Carson’s edition of “The Tonight Show” a total of 76 times, a record not likely ever to be beaten by any other singer with any other host. If you love songs of every kind sung like they’re meant to be sung, it just doesn’t get any better than this.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Marcos Valle & Celso Fonseca

I like bossa nova singer / songwriter and all around luminary Marcos Valle because he combines a strong sense of syncopation and groove with a rich and vibrant harmonic palette – these things will get my attention anytime. Add to that a sunny disposition and sensibility best expressed by his signature song “Summer Samba (So Nice)” (made famous by Astrud Gilberto), and I’m in musical love.

In his current club act at Birdland, Valle is backed by a trio of musicians whose precision and energy border on the supernatural. When they lock into the groove that Valle is playing on the keyboard – which is most of the time – the room positively levitates with musical excitement in its most direct form. The effect is so dynamic, in fact, that I found myself wishing that Birdland had a dance floor. Even more than your typical samba, this is music that moves.

About half of the concert is duets with a Brazilian singer / songwriter from the generation following Valle’s, Celso Fonseca. In contrast to Valle’s infectious brio, Fonseca emanates a wry laid-back quality that is described by his signature tune “Slow Motion Bossa Nova.” The two compliment each other surprisingly well, Valle energizing Fonseca, Fonseca contributing witty color to Valle’s drive. They made an album together in 2009, Página Central, and the instrumental selections from that album are the evening’s most fiery moments, taking as much from the funkier end of disco as from Brazilian music. Hot stuff, indeed!

Valle is also joined by his vocalist wife Patricia Alvi on a handful of numbers, and she brings a quality similar to the women of Sergio Mendes’s Brasil ’66, which works especially well on Valle’s 1967 bossa nova classic “Crickets.” Overall, one of the most stimulating cabaret shows I’ve seen in some time.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.