American Song Cycle: A Double Bill is an understated, high-concept delight. On Sunday November 19, this sophisticated, yet instantly accessible two-act concert, made its Melbourne debut at Chapel Off Chapel in Prahran.
As the title alludes, the show is actually comprised of two distinct and completely separate works.
In doing research for this particular review, I was fascinated to learn both parts are in fact stand-alone pieces, and until now have been performed as such. Here however, the creative team in charge of American Song Cycle: A Double Bill, must be congratulated for putting December Songs and Songs From An Unmade Bed together in tandem. Functioning like opposite sides of the one shimmering coin, the beauty of this fusion, is how both stories perfectly complement one another.
December Songs features ten original tunes, with words and music composed by Maury Yeston. Yeston is best-known as the mastermind behind such musical theatre classics as Nine, Grand Hotel and Titanic.
Based on Franz Schubert’s Winterreise (which is a song cycle of art songs), Yeston’s work was commissioned to celebrate Carnegie Hall’s one hundredth anniversary in 1991.
December Songs also has a simple, powerful premise attached. A young woman takes a long and lonely walk outside in the middle of winter, and in doing so, reflects back on lost love.
Yeston’s skill at communicating character is present in full bloom. Performed by Lisa-Marie Parker, she handles his vignettes with twelve-step depth and emotional intensity. Parker’s journey is serious and introspective, but never sentimental.
Song titles performed in order were:
· December Snow
· Where Are You Now?
· Please, Let’s Not Even Say Hello
· When Your Love Is New
· Bookseller In the Rain
· My Grandmother’s Love Letters
· I Am Longing
· I Had A Dream About You
· By The River
· What A Relief
With styles switching from light opera to seductive jazz, December Songs is both a showcase for Yeston’s impressive range and Parker’s versatility. In her care, ‘When Your Love Is New’ and ‘My Grandmother’s Love Letters’ were particular standouts. Here, Parker reminded this reviewer of the cabaret artist, Linda Eder.
Further still, I was reminded of the Off-Broadway two-hander, Daddy Long Legs, where the female lead detailed her innermost thoughts, hopes and dreams through music. Such is the deceptive, gentle power of December Songs.
On the comedic flip side, John O’Hara presented Songs From An Unmade Bed, with saucy panache and knowing flair. Like Armistead Maupin’s Tales Of The City novels set to song, O’Hara plays a gay urban romantic, more than happy to dish and detail his endless sexual escapades.
The key difference between December Songs and Songs From An Unmade Bed, is the latter’s librettist, Mark Campbell, uses a different composer to support his words for each piece. It is a brilliant decision, allowing O’Hara access to an extensive catalogue of musical magic. One minute he can have us rolling in the aisles. The next, we are transfixed and spellbound.
Song titles performed in order were:
· Here In My Bed
· An Admission
· The Man In The Starched White Shirt
· Perfect, Finite
· The Other, Other Woman
· Oh, to Be Stupid Again
· Exit, Right
· He Plays The Cello
· Funny Gesture
· I Want To Go Out Tonight
· He Never did That Before
· A Dinner Party
· I Miss New York
· Our Separate Ways
· To Sing
· The Night He Decided To Stay
O’Hara’s sassy renditions of ’The Other, Other Woman’, ‘Exit, Right’ and ‘He Plays The Cello’ reminded me of two current Broadway stars, Gavin Creel and Jonathan Groff.
In director, Chris Parker’s, and musical director, Geoffrey Castles’ combined care, they have created a double-headed experience dripping with atmosphere. December Songs included expert instrumental support from Castles on piano and Timothy Hennessy on cello. Lara Wilson on percussion, joined both musicians for Songs From An Unmade Bed.
Subtle lighting effects, excellent sound design, and smooth stage management, helped keep the audience fully engaged for the ninety-minute running time.
Exuding immersive nightclub charm reminiscent of Manhattan’s 54 Below or the Blue Note Jazz Club, here’s hoping American Song Cycle isn’t only a one-time only exercise, with a repeat viewing very soon.