Kathryne Langford

July 17, 2018 | By | Add a Comment

No hard-and-fast rule dictates how much spoken word cabaret singers should include in their shows. Generally, spoken remarks don’t occur in a show until after the second number. Then, depending on the thematic nature of the program, they’re sprinkled throughout the remainder of the show (though not usually before every single number). Lately, some performers have taken to speaking only when greeting the audience near the top of the set and then again at the end, when they thank their musicians, other personnel, and the audience. Sometimes that works. But sometimes it leaves the audience feeling a bit at sea.

In her new Don’t Tell Mama show, For What It’s Worth (directed by Lennie Watts), Kathryne Langford doesn’t follow the new fashion entirely, but for the most part she lets the songs speak for themselves. The show is her response to America’s current political upheaval, and she includes songs of dissent, protest, and resistance. (The set features material by Bob Dylan, Lennon and McCartney, and Sting, among others.) While the sentiment of individual songs may be apparent, her overall message is not so clear. She speaks more than once about the “strange times” we’re living in now—and it seems pretty clear that she’s thinking largely of the trespasses of the Trump Administration. But because she doesn’t guide us from one idea to the next (and from one song to the next), the show has a sort of vagueness about it. At two points she reads short excerpts from Aaron James’s 2012 book Assholes: A Theory, in which the writer talks about issues of cultural entitlement. But more connective tissue—that is, more spoken passages explicating her intentions—could make her program more coherent.

One way for singers to provide thematic clarity within a show is through thoughtful ordering of songs. Langford and Watts might benefit from thinking more about this. The show begins with Sting’s “Fragile,” which features lyrics that speak about the vulnerability of “those born beneath an angry star.” It’s a song that fits into Langford’s seeming thematic agenda, but it is an odd choice for an opener. She follows it with the show’s title song—whose full title, for the record, is “For What It’s Worth (Stop, Hey What’s That Sound)”—written by Stephen Stills. The song, which grew out of the culture clashes of the mid-1960s, references “battle lines being drawn” and “paranoia striking deep.” This fits well with Langford’s “strange times” theme. So wouldn’t it make more sense to use this song as her first salvo? It has the added benefit of having much more energy than the contemplative “Fragile”—thanks in part to musical director Wells Hanley’s feisty, funky arrangement.

Langford includes two songs by Dave Frishberg: “Blizzard of Lies” and “My Country Used to Be.” The latter number fits logically in the thematic mix, but “Blizzard” is a lighter, more comic number that talks not so much about a government lying to the populace but, rather, about everyday assurances (“your check is in the mail,” “your secret’s safe with me”) that turn out to be untruths. Perhaps if Langford were to introduce the song with some observations about the pervasiveness of “fake news” in everyday life, its inclusion would make better sense.

Of course, none of my problems with the show’s content means that Langford doesn’t do some lovely singing in the show. Her voice often has a plaintive quality that can take on a folky, Joan Baez sort of sound. But on some songs, she also lets her voice soar in crescendo, almost to the level of a belt. On one appealing mash-up of songs, she allows both qualities to come through: Ralph McTell’s “Streets of London” has the folkier quality while Roger Waters and Richard Wright’s “Us and Them” has that belt-ish oomph.

Unfortunately, her voice tends to bloom and then wither within the course of a song. This problem is similar to one I noted the last time I reviewed a show of hers, in 2012. Then, the steam seemed to run out in the last portion of the show. Here the falling-off tends to happen in the last bars of songs. I wonder if part of the difficulty may be with microphone technique. In the performance I attended, I noticed that when Langford used a handheld mic (as she did on “Streets of London”/”Us and Them”), the sound quality was more consistent. She might experiment to see whether this is indeed the case.

The talented Hanley is joined by fellow musicians Henry Fraser (bass) and Mike Lunoe (drums). The trio plays artfully, albeit, at times, a bit too loudly for Langford’s quieter vocals.

For What It’s Worth
Don’t Tell Mama  –  February 10, March 2, May 8, July 13, September 7, November 13

Category: Reviews

About the Author ()

Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. His features and reviews have appeared in such publications as American Theatre and Back Stage and on BistroAwards.com. As a dramaturg he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. His stage adaptation of Henry James's novel The Tragic Muse was part of the Gilded Stage Festival at the Metropolitan Playhouse in January 2014.

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