NY Cabaret Review by Marilyn Lester
It was fitting that on Johnny Mercer’s 115th birthday – he was born on November 18, 1909 – his memory was lovingly honored by a talented cast of singers and dancers to benefit the 20th anniversary of Dancers Over Forty – an organization that advocates for “mature performers” in all areas of show business.
Led off by guest hosts Tony Sheldon and Anita Gillette, the song and dance got under way with the entire cast singing “Accentuate The Positive” (music by Harold Arlen). The show’s tunes, spanning the range of Mercer’s nearly fifty-year career as a composer and lyricist, were punctuated by text conceived by director, Karin Baker (Baker is a Broadway dancer who’s moved into a successful directing and writing career). Combining Mercer’s own words with noteworthy facts about his life, she produced a flowing narrative recounting the life of America’s “folk poet” – a genius whose brilliant and dark sides informed his everlasting work.
The company: Patti Mariano (who also choreographed), Juliet Ewing, Bambi Jones and Joyce Nolen, brought to life a wide variety of Mercer-penned songs with verve and respect. Among them, “Skylark,” (music by Hoagy Carmichael) was sung by Ewing on point, with poignancy and yearning. Ewing also sang “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “Hit the Road to Dreamland” (both with music by Harold Arlen). Comic turns were deftly handled by Nolen: “Goody, Goody” (music by Matty Malneck), and “Lazy Bones” (music by Carmichael). Nolen showed her serious side with a soulful rendition of “Autumn Leaves” (music by Josef Kosma), which morphed into “When October Goes” (music by Barry Manilow) sung by Sheldon. The ever-bright Mariano handled the comedy in “Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing In a Hurry” (music by Victor Schertzinger) with her buoyant sense of fun.
Pianist/Music Director, David Hancock Turner, in the tradition of singing pianists, gave us “I’m Old Fashioned” (music by Jerome Kern) and “One For My Baby” (music by Arlen) from the 88s, and strummed the ukulele in a trio with Ewing and Jones on “Dream” (words and music by Mercer). Bambi Jones put her authoritative and dexterous stamp on “Blues in the Night,” (music by Arlen), as well as “I Thought About You,” (music by Jimmy van Heusen), and “The Days of Wine and Roses” (music by Henry Mancini).
Anita Gillette performed the achingly wistful “Whistling in the Dark” (music by Mancini) with the chops that’s defined her long career in theater, film and television. With Sheldon, she sang the lighthearted “Jeepers Creepers” (music by Harry Warren), introduced in 1938 by the one and only Louis Armstrong.
A feature of the evening – Dancers Over Forty is noted for its educational initiatives – was the panel, introduced by Sheldon and Gillette singing “Too Marvelous for Words” (music by Richard Whiting). Special Guests Debbi Bush Whiting and Michael Kerker took the stage to offer their unique insights and perspectives. Whiting, the daughter of singer Margaret Whiting (founding President of the Johnny Mercer Foundation, by the way) and granddaughter of composer Richard Whiting, shared memories of Johnny Mercer, the man. Mercer was a close friend of the Whiting family, and learning about “Saturday at the Whiting’s,” was an especial treat. Michael Kerker, Director of Musical Theatre for ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) opened a window into the creative process of Mercer’s body of work (his catalog contains over 1,400 published and unpublished songs with lyrics and/or music by Mercer).
Because “Something’s Gotta Give” (words and music Mercer, sung by Ewing, Jones and Nolen), the salute had to end – but not without Mariano leading the cast in the Victor Schertzin/Mercer song mirroring everyone’s thought about the great one: “I’ll Remember You.”
A Salute to Johnny Mercer – Tuesday, November 18 at 8 pm
Stage 72 (Triad Theater), 158 West 72nd Street, 212-362-2590, www.stage72.com