By Martha Wade Steketee
Deep moody melodies, a dark Yiddish lullaby, a few standards, and a smattering of singer-songwriter staples inform the splendid cabaret offering by veteran performer Joanna Gleason at 54 Below. This Broadway baby and artful songstress has crafted a show out of her life, as the best cabaret can do, by rooting itself in this moment, looking backward and forward and cherishing the present, with delightful artistry.
Stories about her long-living parents, children, and new grandchild speak to every person in the room She lost her 90-year-old mother and 96-year-old father within months of each other in 2017 (and just short of their 70th wedding anniversary) and for a time, she tells us, she lost her bearings. A solar eclipse that took place between the two deaths she took as a kind of celestial sign that she’s been parsing since. Between stories and song selections, Gleason’s “Out of the Eclipse” offers achingly personal reflections on past losses and challenges that are both personal and universal in the best storytelling manner.
A review of the set list prior to the show suggested that this performance might be a post-election resurrection and imagining of the next chapter of our shared cultural story. Evangelically-inclined pieces hint at sermons – “Sermonette” sung in close a cappella harmony by her singing trio the Moontones (Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks, and Annie Ross), and “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” (Sam Phillips). A Yiddish lullaby “Oyfn Pripetchik (M. M. Warshawsky) inspires smiles then bemused alarm when the lyrics are revealed to allude to deaths and trials rather than quiet calm to accompany a child’s slumber. Gleason takes these tunes as a springboard into exploring a bit of spirituality, a pinch of family dynamics, and an ever-present curiosity about the meaning of life.
This show and these songs, personal to her, delectably delivered with the able assistance of vocalists Moontones (Michael Protacio, Christine Cornell and Christiana Cole) and musicians Jeffrey Klitz on piano, Katherine Spingarn on cello, Justi Rothberg on a variety of stringed instruments, and Shane DelRobles on percussion show us how she found her way back to her family, to her own legacy, and back to herself.
“With a Song in My Heart” (Rodgers and Hart) is a syncopated, rhythmic ride involving her three singers, rhythm interspersed with soaring melody. “With a song in my heart, I behold your adorable face, Just a song at the start, But it soon is a hymn to your grace.” Goodness. Glorious.
“If the Stars Were Mine” (Melody Gardot) is delivered with intimate and wistful guitar accompaniment. “If the star were mine … if the birds were mine … if the world was mine,” so the lyrics go, a loved one would be bequeathed them all.
The tune “You’d be So Nice to Come Home To” (Cole Porter), lovingly performed, inspires more stories about Mom and Dad and their huge and life long love. Dad would tell Joanna that when he first saw her mother, “he could see the rest of his life.”
A tune and personal anecdotes from the famous 1991 flop Nick and Nora inspire the show biz sympathetic “aw” (the show ran for a week, we recall) and human applause for her 1994 marriage to fellow castmate Chris Sarandon, who joins her on stage mid-show. Gleason’s anecdote outlining special annoyance at book writer and director Arthur Laurents (a particular focus here is on disturbing last-minute lyric changes taped onto set pieces) that morph into a gorgeous patter duet with Sarandon that is achingly real and charming and moving. “True Love” (Cole Porter) from the movie High Society (1956) (to me a misbegotten musicalization of the almost perfect 1940 film Philadelphia Story) becomes in their hands a one act play of one partner calming the other through an emotional performance experience neither can control. “The show ended,” she tells us later, “and the rest of my life began.
Gleason muses on magic and signs and reveals a taste for quiet melodramatic contemplation. Whether you travel her through line of religious belief in the afterlife, or magical connections (is that mom’s spirit in the hedge and did Dad hear me as he was dying and come back as my grandson) or just in love of those around you, this show and her story is about long relationships, loving those within earshot and arm’s length, and living life fully.
Her father reflects about his seven decades with her mother, “we made a big life,” and Joanna inspires us through story and song to hope for the same for ourselves.
Joanna Gleason’s “Out of the Eclipse” at Feinstein’s/54 Below (254 West 54th Street) on March 1, 2, and 22 at 7pm.
Photo: Melissa Griegel Photography