By Martha Wade Steketee
The Metropolitan Room’s air conditioning could barely keep up with the heat generated by the enthusiastic early show crowd at the venue on a recent evening. We gathered to experience the theatrical wonders of Vivian Reed in intimate conversation with her assembled musicians – William Foster McDaniel at the piano, Gary Foote on bass guitar, Damon Duewhite on drums, and Erik Jacobson on cello, ascending mid-set to the small stage from his seat in the audience. And we all got warmer as the evening proceeded.
From the first moments, this was not your average cabaret show. One of Ms. Reed’s friends emerged from her booth to introduce her in a powerful and apparently impromptu introduction (whether planned or not it felt of the moment) that included a quick listing of some of Reed’s credits (e.g. Juilliard, the 1976 Broadway revue Bubbling Brown Sugar) and a parsing of her name as if it were a cheer. If we’d been provided the details on a lyric sheet, we all would have engaged in the call-and-response by show’s end. Here’s my best recreation: V for voice and Vivian, I for irresistible, A for ageless, N for naughty, E for elegant, and D for dazzling. (My notes are missing the R, but I’ll say, after I witnessed her ensemble, R for red dress. What a wonder.)
Reed displayed all of her sinewy dancer’s physicality and vocal dexterity – from a deep melodious growl to tuneful primal high notes. She worked her touch with an audience with us, at us, for us, asking several times for lights up and wandering the cramped audience space during the 90-minute set. She took us on a tuneful journey of mostly standards (her love for rhythm and blues came through in several selections), artfully arranged, interspersed with stories that illuminated certain lyrical content in personal, poignant, and sometimes righteous ways.
A splendid, riotous, closely-constructed medley of familiar and not-as-familiar standards started off the evening and set the tone. “Just One of Those Things (Cole Porter) announced to one and all Reed’s hold on the legacy of Lena Horne’s delivery, segued into a mesmerizing drum beat infused “Almost Like Being in Love” (Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe), and culminated in a swinging “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die” (Walter Kent & Husband Curtis & Al Hoffman).
The show was full of subtle musical surprises handed out by Reed and her musicians. In another medley, a piano musical quotation from “Windmills of Your Mind” (Michel Legrand & Alan and Marilyn Bergman) became “My Funny Valentine” (Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart) that transitioned into Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” and ended with cellist Jacobson quoting “Someone to Watch Over Me” (George and Ira Gershwin). The arrangements Reed crafted with her conductor and pianist McDaniel often led into and out of sentimental favorites with a laugh of surprise, and along the way showed off the delicious alto depths of Reed’s vocal range.
“Strange Fruit” (Abel Meeropol) slayed the crowd in slow-paced, aurally exquisite and thematically painful duet with classically trained Andrea Jones-Sojola.
And what evening of contemporary standards would be complete without a little something from Stephen Sondheim? Cellist Jacobson and pianist McDaniel augmented, illustrated, dramatized, electrified Reed’s moving rendition of “Losing My Mind” from Follies.
In a final highlight for an emotional evening, Reed introduced “Believe in Yourself” (Charlie Smalls) from The Wiz with a moving story involving her mother, for whom she cared during her final years. Toward the end of her mother’s life, Reed discussed her fears of returning to the stage after this time away. “Believe in yourself just as I believe in you,” the lyrics and her mother said. After this introduction, Reed delivered, with her audience already misty-eyed, a stunning and straightforward performance of this anthem to taking stock, moving forward, and trusting in your own worth.
A great gift of a mother to a child, as Vivian Reed is a gift to us.
Vivian Reed Sings Standards and More took place Thursday, July 21 at 7 pm and 9:30pm with future shows planned Monday, September 26 at 9:30pm and Thursday, November 10 at 9:30 pm. (34 West 22nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues). http://metropolitanroom.com/ Tel: 212.2060440.
Photos: Lou Montesano