By JK Clarke . . .
The ability to express emotion through song is one of the things that makes us—humans—such a remarkable species. We often, in the fog of commercialism, forget that at the heart of all great singing is deep, deep feeling. We tell the world sometimes of our joy, of our love or of our sorrow. And it is in truly emotive times that we truly begin to understand what certain songs are about.
This past Sunday night at Don’t Tell Mama was a bittersweet evening. It was the first return to the stage of Barbara Bleier and Austin Pendleton’s latest cabaret show, “Steve and Oscar” since the tragic and incomprehensible death of Barbara Maier Gustern, who directed this production. Touchingly, at the top of the show, Bleier and Pendleton added a Brourman & McBroom song, “Saying Goodbye” (sent to them by Michelle Brourman, who’d been close with Gustern). It was a lovely song that left the house teary-eyed.
Pendleton and Bleier’s previous collaborations have been meditations on long friendships as well as the march of time. Thematically linked pieces that tell stories in song. And though this latest show was meant to explore their mutual love for Stephen Sondheim and Oscar Hammerstein— with songs only by the two master songwriters—this Sunday night an unexpected theme emerged: Loss. With songs like Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Cockeyed Optimist” (“that’s her!” noted Austin, referring to Gustern) and “No Way to Stop It” and Sondheim’s “Loving You,” “I’m Still Here” and “Move On,” the two sang about the need to accept profound change in life, but continue to love and live. Perhaps these songs’ lyrics didn’t resonate this way when they were chosen, but on this night they seemed to have enhanced meaning and value. Just about every song in the set seemed to speak to the profoundly sad circumstances.
Accompanied by Paul Greenwood on piano, Pendleton and Bleier alternated on songs, and sang some with accompaniment by Greenwood. They told stories about why the pieces had meaning for them, or gave background into their creation. But as they moved through the set, as Bleier sang in “Anyone Can Whistle,” what was “hard became simple.” Or so it seemed. There was love in the room and the three performers truly embraced the moment and sang with absolute soul and emotion.
The show ended on a note of renewal, both with the delightful Rogers and Hammerstein classic from Oklahoma!, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” in which the crowd joined; and finally with a rousing round of “Happy Birthday” (and a piece of cake with candle) for Austin Pendleton.
“Steve and Oscar” – Barbara Bleier and Austin Pendelton. Next and final show is Sunday, April 3 at 7pm at Don’t Tell Mama (343 West 46th Street, between Eighth and Ninth Avenues). www.donttellmamanyc.com
Photos: JK Clarke