Nancy McGraw celebrated Johnny Mercer with Mark Nadler at the piano – a perfect collaboration!
by Linda Amiel Burns
On October 20, 2019 at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, Nancy McGraw’s latest show “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” celebrated the lyrics of the legendary Johnny Mercer who wrote with many musical collaborators, was nominated for eighteen Academy Awards, and won four times. This show was a perfect combination of extraordinary material matching a terrific performer, containing varied and excellent song choices along with stunning arrangements. I have never heard Nancy sing better, completely holding the attention of the audience from start to finish, and proving herself to be not only a great storyteller but a superb actress. Her lovely and versatile voice soared throughout the show and I was able to listen to the lyrics of many familiar songs in a brand new way. This show was also a collaboration between Nancy and her longtime friend, the uber-talented entertainer, music director, and arranger Mark Nadler who accompanied her brilliantly on the piano, and together they made cabaret magic.
Nancy and Mercer both share Southern roots as she was born in Georgia and raised in Charlotte, NC and quotes Johnny as saying “what makes me tick, I am from Savannah!” Nancy reminisced about growing up in the South, dances, teen cotillions, white gloves and a certain gracious life style. Her patter was always interesting, relevant and moved us along on this remarkable journey. The special arrangement of Harold Arlen’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” was fresh and reimagined. “Have You Got Any Castles, Baby?” was written with Richard Whiting who died young and his daughter, singer Margaret Whiting was in charge of his vast catalog and the Johnny Mercer Foundation. Nancy put a new spin on “Lazybones” written with Hoagy Carmichael as she continually grew angry at the lazy guy she was singing to. The duet “Save the Bones for Henry Jones,” a not often performed silly song by Danny Barker and Vernon Lee, gave Nancy and Mark a chance to play and have fun.
A moving and beautifully acted medley was “I Wonder What Became of Me” (Harold Arlen) paired with “When the World Was Young” (M.Philippe-Gerard) that almost brought me to tears, Then Nancy and Mark sang a funny 1973 novelty number written with Jimmie Rowles called “Frasier (the Sensuous Lion)” – the real life story of King Frasier, an elderly lion retired to a California zoo, who mates with several lioness to the delight of his keepers, and it is said that Mercer related to the aged lover. Neither missed a lyric of this humorous, lengthy and wordy saga.
The classic “Blues in the Night” was given a wonderful arrangement and as it was ending Mark and Nancy made us feel the rhythm of a train arriving as they began to sing the Oscar winning “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” (Harry Warren) that felt original and brand new. The combo of “I Walk With Music” and the lively “And The Angels Sing” (Ziggy Elman) was a perfect closing to this remarkable show as the last lyric is “The Angels Sing and leave their music ringing in my heart!” and that is what I felt – Nancy had touched us and left the music ringing in our hearts with this exceptional show.
However, just when you thought the show was over, the encore was even more brilliant, a unique pairing of “Whistling Away the Dark” with “Moon River” (Mancini) and then “Hit the Road to Dreamland” as they bade us goodbye in song as it was “time to hit the road.” The audience lept to their feet giving Nancy a well-deserved standing ovation as Mark joined her to take their final bows. This is the end of the run, but it is hoped that this incredible show will be repeated again in the near future!
Photos: Helene Blumfield