Early on in her show at Don’t Tell Mama, Still Exactly Where I Belong, Deborah Stone sings a pairing of Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer’s “I’m Old Fashioned” and Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s “Simple Little Things.” The first of these numbers seems to define this performer well. And I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. It’s not that Stone is “old fashioned” in the sense of being stale or out of date. But she has an air of dignity and reserve, softened by a friendly sweetness, that suggests the sensibility of an era gentler than our own. In short, she displays grace.
That quality comes through in her appealing smile. But it can be heard as well in her voice. Stone’s upper notes have a metallic quality: an alloy blending silver with something a bit less pricey. Her lower notes are full and warm, and provide a good anchor for what’s going on above. On certain numbers—Kander and Ebb’s “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer,” for instance—she slips into belting mode and is surprisingly effective when she does. (She doesn’t, though, go full tilt with volume on Mary Rodgers and Marshall Barer’s “Shy,” and that works against the song’s comic irony. The number, originally performed by Carol Burnett as Princess Winifred in Once Upon a Mattress, requires a cloddish, blaring tomboy quality. That’s not Stone at all.)
At the performance I saw, the singer got off to a somewhat fumbling start with Bernstein and Sondheim’s “Something’s Coming.” She appeared to be nervous, and some of her swaying movements seemed wrong for the song. As the evening progressed, she became more relaxed and self-assured.
The show—directed by Ann McCormack—could benefit from a stronger theme. As the title suggests, Stone (formerly a dance and theatre artist) has reached (and confirmed) the conclusion that an intimate club setting is a good place for her to express herself. That’s a wonderful thing to have realized, but it’s not quite enough to build a show around.
At one point she talks about having studied acting with Hal Holden, who left her with a memorable lesson: that a song is “an extraordinary event.” That idea might have provided a better hook to hang a show on. Indeed, Stone has selected several highly “eventful” songs (mostly from musical theatre) to highlight. Some work, others falter a bit. She delivers a solid “Some People” from Gypsy (Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim). Her rendition of Company‘s “The Ladies Who Lunch,” on the other hand, isn’t quite there yet. I believe she could find a way of better differentiating the various categories of women that songwriter Sondheim describes: “the girls who stay smart,” “the girls on the go,” “the girls who play wife,” and “the girls who just watch.”
The songs that do succeed show Stone off well. Her take on Cole Porter’s “The Physician”—in which she effectively uses speak-singing—is winning. And she savors the imagery in a delectable rendition of “Garbage” from Dear World, reminding us with her careful enunciation that songwriter Jerry Herman is not only a gifted melody-maker but also a writer of piquant lyrics.
The best selection of the evening is a smart pairing of Billy Barnes’s “Something Cool” with Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right with Me.” In tandem, the songs trace the interior monologue of a woman who hopes to make romance fizz, but instead watches it fizzle. Stone begins the Barnes song seated unguardedly beside the piano. Her voice is still, relaxed—and especially appealing. Eventually, as she moves into the Porter song, she stands. She picks up energy and volume, segueing into the “belt” zone. When she returns, finally, to “Something Cool,” it has the flavor of bitters and rue, served in a tall glass.
Woody Regan is Stone’s accompanist and musical director. If he’s responsible for devising that Barnes/Porter mash-up, he deserves special credit. His playing, though—again, at least at the performance I saw—seemed oddly tentative at points. I wish he’d supported Stone with a bit more oomph.
Still Exactly Where I Belong
Don’t Tell Mama – March 23, April 15