In Make Yourself Comfortable, singer Liz Rubino’s Don’t Tell Mama debut, there are two elements and styles at war with each other. One is that of a thoughtful, emotional storyteller making even very well-known lyrics live and breathe in ways that surprise and satisfy. The other is that of a nervous, inexperienced novice (which she is not) unable to own the material she is singing and succumbing to nerves and misplaced energy. At times it feels as if she’d had only enough time to rehearse about half the material in depth, and just before show time she took the rehearsed and unrehearsed songs and shuffled them like a deck of cards.
The title sets up her stated concept of “comfort” as a connective through line, but some of the numbers are forced to fit this idea and others are really not connected at all. This is the kind of idea that would have been better left unspoken so that the audience could pick up vague connections on their own and not question every number regarding its appropriateness under the limiting set-up.
At the top of the plus column is a nicely understated but involving “If You Could Read My Mind” (Gordon Lightfoot). She really delivers the lyrics in a personal way and it is a delight. Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” is nicely set up historically as a muted response to the Vietnam War, and her sharing her love of the poetry in the lyrics with us is touching. “Disneyland” (Marvin Hamlisch, Howard Ashman) has been done many times in cabarets and piano bars, but Rubino makes it fresh and charming. Her fallback style on the numbers that don’t work is to force things, pushing too hard and revealing nerves and a lack of control over her voice.
Music director Matthew Martin Ward offers fine accompaniment on the songs, regardless of the singer’s success with them. Guest star lyricist Stephen Cole’s songs tend to be Borscht Belt take-offs that do not fit the singer, and when he joins her onstage, his enjoyment of them outweighs that of the audience.
It was revealing that at the end, no director was thanked. The show could benefit immensely from a third eye. At least a director would have told Rubino to place the microphone lower and let us see her mouth as she sings, and that having the mic so close causes the sound to distort. She might not have left the mic stand center stage, in her way when she wasn’t using it. She might have been guided not to overplay her facial expressions when she’s not singing. (During instrumental breaks, she overacts the state the lyrics left her in like a silent movie actress overselling emotions with her face; this happens often.) A director might have gotten her to smooth out the material and treat each song with the personality and style she shows in her best numbers.
The good songs are so good that the critical balance tips in her favor. I hope Liz Rubino works to bring the rest of the show up to their level.
Make Yourself Comfortable
Don’t Tell Mama – March 11, April 8