by: Myra Chanin
It’s always interesting when a Broadway, film and TV star, takes a new road, as Len Cariou did last night at 54 Below with George Gershwin. Why Gershwin? Why not? Len was impressed with Gershwin when he was 12 and heard an entire album on which Ella Fitzgerald sang George’s songs accompanied by a single piano. Len preferred the backing of a trio led by his amazing musical director/arranger Mark Janas, whose nimble fingers switched between the pop songwriter and the classical composer. Gershwin wrote about 500 songs in his 38 years, but Cariou assured us, “I’m only singing about a third of them tonight.”
Len was particularly impressed with the lyrics and the verses written by the brothers G. Their verses are more melodic than most songs written today. Incidentally there were a few celebs in the audience, including Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, Penny Fuller and Anita Gillette.
The Gershwin songs, sung individually or as part of a medley by Len, included Embraceable You from Girl Crazy where the actual band in the pit at that musical included a young Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and Jimmy Dorsey! Wow! When Len was working at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, he promised director Fred Hirsh, that even though he was doing mostly classics, he wouldn’t forget about his voice and he kept that promise. “I went to parties, said I wanted to sing and made a pest of myself.”
As Someone to Watch Over Me blended with S’Wonderful, Len’s voice grew more powerful and sure, but he was at his best – remember, he is basically a great actor who sings – in a dramatic rendition of It Ain’t Necessarily So, in which the audience joined. Other dramatic presentations included Sweet and Lowdown and Slap that Bass.
There were some sound level problems during the first five minutes, when Len was drowned out by the piano, but that was adjusted and should not be a problem in the forthcoming two performances on Friday and Saturday nights, Dec. 13 & 14 at 7 pm. His encore, Swanee, was heartily and dramatically sung.
Gershwin may just not be exactly right for him. I think he’ll be more comfortable with fewer lovesongs in the future, or perhaps, Cariou should attempt more differently dramatic material at which he always excels.
(photos/video: Sandi Durell)