By Andrew Poretz . . .
Of all the gin joints, of all the towns, in all the world, Broadway and cabaret star Melissa Errico walked into one of the best of them, Birdland. A Noir Romance is the latest show to come out of Melissa’s Film Noir Project. The star sure loves her noir. And who can blame her? Noir combines romance, sex, mystery and danger. The compelling genre makes for a bottomless treasure trove of material for a cabaret show. And Melissa delivered the goods, see!
Theater Pizzazz was there for the first of a nine-set residency. A rotating set list of some 40 songs, most of which were in noir films, ensured no two shows would be identical. Melissa was backed by the same outstanding musicians as on her Out of the Dark album release show: Pianist Tedd Firth, drummer Eric Halvorsen, bassist David Finck, guitarist Russ Malone, and David Mann on woodwinds (tenor and alto sax, clarinet and flute). Special guest trumpeter Benny Benack III joins the fun for Melissa’s Monday sets.
The tall, gorgeous star appeared to have fallen off a 1940s issue of Modern Screen, dressed in a stunning and sparkly black dress with a black sash designed by Eric Winterling, her long, lustrous hair in soft waves. Melissa’s opening patter was in the style of a noir voiceover.
The first highlight of the set was “Angel Eyes” (Matt Dennis/Earl Brent, introduced in the film Jennifer). Melissa sang the obscure verse. It was played as a slow blues, with Russell Malone’s guitar underscoring the imagined screen action. Melissa cuddled up to Tedd Firth, singing from the piano bench. This is one of the best renditions I’ve ever heard.
Melissa, in exceptional voice, gave a goosebump-inducing read on “With Every Breath I Take” (Cy Coleman/ David Zippel, from City of Angels). With palpable passion, the star showed her vulnerability. On “Haunted Heart” (Arthur Schwartz/Howard Dietz), Tedd Firth’s brilliant voicings were stunning, and one could nearly float on Melissa’s voice in this piece.
The 1945 film Laura is the quintessential noir film with a title song to match. Melissa sang the verse, rubato, before singing the familiar refrain in an upbeat rhumba that surprisingly worked. Mr. Malone’s solo was spot on. The star spoke poetically of falling in love with the noir genre during the pandemic, at times finding herself luxuriating in her (presumably clawfoot) bathtub while watching noir films.
Melissa sang the lovely “Amour, Amour,” which combined a Michel Legrand melody from the 1970 film Peau d’Ane with modern lyrics by Jeremy Sams, making its debut in 2021. David Mann’s flute gave it a wistful sort of magic.
In a bit that was as entertaining as it was instructive, Melissa asked Tedd Firth to turn a Rodgers and Hammerstein song (“Hello Young Lovers”) into a “noir.” Firth gave a music lesson while breaking down its construction, which involved fifths, ninths and moving lines, with an end result reminiscent of the James Bond theme. This served to segue to the never-before-sung “Marlowe’s Theme” from Farewell, My Lovely, with Adam Gopnik’s lyrics to the original David Shire tune. Mr. Mann’s hot alto sax solo was, of course, quite noir.
The star closed out the set with “Shadows and Light” (David Shire/Adam Gopnik) and an encore of “Again” (Lionel Newman/ Dorcas Cochran), introduced by multihyphenate Ida Lupino in Road House.
The loquacious Melissa is filled with stories to share, and the mere telling of them gets her talking excitedly, at a fast clip, her eyes lighting up. Her delight is contagious, and on the occasional flub—like her admirable attempt on a ukulele number—she is too adorable for it to matter.
Before the performance, this writer was curious. Would A Noir Romance be essentially the same as the Out of the Dark album release show we reviewed at 54 Below in 2023? Melissa was more than forthcoming.
“It’s less an ‘album release.’ It’s not that AT ALL anymore. I’ve lived in this now . . . and the album exists now. (Like secret lingerie I can pull out when the mood is right.) I wrote two new monologues for this incarnation . . . letting the past and present merge and entwine for me in this . . . in it, a hope for light. Painting—in music—a picture that would speak to today’s condition. This excerpt from one of them paints a vivid picture (in beautiful black and white, of course):
“I could see myself as a girl singer in a saloon on West 52nd Street in 1948, with a laconic genius piano player and a gangster boyfriend. As I imagined her, she used to be a big band singer, but she got fired by the band leader for smoking reefer with the woodwinds.”
Melissa Errico sees her Film Noir Project as, well, an evolving thing. “A project, writers, photographers. Songs. Videos. A novel. Story in the New York Times. Maybe someday more actors. More femmes fatale. Friends. A Netflix series about a mother of three teens with a secret life as a nightclub singer.”
Melissa Errico – A Noir Romance took place February 10-14 at Birdland Theater (315 West 44th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues) www.birdlandjazz.com
Photos: David Rosen, except where indicated
Feature photo: Diana McEnroe