Reviewed by Joe Regan Jr.
Dec. 12, 2013
Euan Morton hasn’t done a musical evening in New York in several years (I think the last one was a celebration of Robert Burns birthday some years ago), although he has performed musically in Washington DC and has been seen in several plays (the Broadway Sondheim show, the last Cyrano de Bergerac revival and recent plays off-Broadway). Morton returned to New York in a unique and wonderful act at 54 Below December 12th. Backed by his usual musical director Bryan Reeder and a full brass band Grandpa Musselman and His Syncopators with black and white shields on their bandstands, the concept was a band and singer in a speakeasy club right after Prohibition was repealed. Morton was decked out in a bow tie and tuxedo (all the band members were in formal dress too) and sported a period pencil thin mustache. The evening rocked with songs written in the 30s and before his appearance Grandpa Musselman and His Syncopators, which is a great group, blasted out a terrific overture of 30’s songs.
Morton’s first song was “I’ll See You In My Dreams” and he moved all over the stage as old time band singers did. After some patter about the year 1933 (and joking about the man who led the repeal of Prohibition), he said his next song was his favorite and he sang, in the purest voice, “It Had To Be You.” Morton’s tenor voice, which sounds like a reed instrument, has never sounded better. His body is also very trim and his athletic energy throughout the entire act was enviable. Most of the songs he sang were with the complete unfamiliar verses (“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” “Stardust,” “Makin‘ Whoopee“). He sang “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise” with a syncopated beat and his rendition of “Smoke” was stunning in the way he sang the word “Youth” among the lyrics.
There was a very pure and crystal clear “As Time Goes By” which was actually written in 1931 long before “Casablanca” made it famous. Morton sang it sitting on a stool in a pin spot and brought “bravos” from the sold out audience.
One of the tour de forces of the big band was “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” on which Morton featured every member of the band as he danced around the stage, interacting with their playing.
In between songs, there was a lot of personal chatter, some of which could easily be eliminated from the act. There was a long section about traveling in a model T across the country stopping in little towns that are no longer on the super highways. And there was a long section on the puppy he has just adopted and its toilet habits which I don’t think anyone was interested in hearing. And lots of strange political references.
Lamenting the lost oases of travel where the church surrounded by the cemetery was the center of town, he quieted down for a reverent “Abide With Me, ” which was one of the most moving presentations of that familiar hymn. And his encore was “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” with its original lyric.
The entire show was memorable and I hope the show is recorded. You can find more about Euan Morton and Grandpa Musselman and his Syncopaters on their websites and blogs.