By Marilyn Lester
What other way to introduce an evening of Johnny Mercer tunes than with the title song, a prime Mercer classic (music by Hoagy Carmichael), followed closely by “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” co-written with the equally gifted composer Harold Arlen. Therein began an evening of delights for lovers of the tried-and-true Great American Songbook. These gems of In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening were delivered by Nancy McCall McGraw with grace, enthusiasm and plenty of style.
McGraw tags lyricist Mercer as her favorite songwriter and the love shows. Both are Southerners, and for Mercer, his Savannah roots were all important. Likewise, McGraw’s narrative, sprinkled among these tuneful treasures of song, included tidbits about her growing up in the South, delivered with the warmth and the bubbly, upbeat personality Southern Belles are noted for. These traits were especially applied to the sunny “Have You Got Any Castles, Baby?” whose beat and rhythm suited her perfectly. McGraw also scored points for praising the beautiful music of Richard Whiting and the deprivation to the music world by his premature death in 1938. By contrast, Mercer, who died in 1976, lived long enough to write with many varied collaborators, including Ziggie Elman (“And The Angels Sing”), Philippe-Gérard (“When The World Was Young”) and Alec Wilder (“If Some Day Comes Ever Again”).
In polymath Mark Nadler, McGraw not only got a music director, arranger, pianist and director, but a true partner in constructing and executing her performance. Nadler’s stamp is decidedly on the show, a good thing, because his talents are well matched to hers. Nadler smartly played to McGraw’s strengths, especially her acting ability and, in a lovely Mabel Mercer way, skill for putting a lyric across with parlando as well as in her vocalizing. McGraw’s comic delivery on “Lazy Bones (Hoagy Carmichael) was great fun, as was the story of the lion “Frasier” (Jimmy Rowles). The judicious use of interrupting a number with narrative worked well, especially on thematic medleys: “Autumn Leaves” (Joseph Kosma), “One For My Baby” and “Blues In The Night” (both Harold Arlen). Some stage direction/movement didn’t work as well; there was a slight discomfort apparent, but one that most likely will dissolve the more McGraw performs the show.
Duets with Nadler were a special treat, especially for fans of this irrepressible piano man. He applied his energy and enthusiasm well to turns with McGraw on a delightful, appropriately bouncy and upbeat “On The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe” (Harry Warren), and in the encore medley “Whistling Away The Dark” and “Moon River” (both Henry Mancini) and “Hit The Road To Dreamland” (Harold Arlen). With In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening, Nancy McCall McGraw presented a tasty bon-bon of song wrapped in sweet joy.
In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening at The Laurie Beechman Theatre in the West Bank Café, 407 West 42nd St., NYC, on Friday February 22 and Sunday, February 24, 2019