By Roy Sander
"Dangerous Women – Life in Film Noir"
Don't Tell Mama – November 4, 11, 18, 25
I was so taken with Billie Roe's performance when she was a contestant in the first MetroStar Talent Challenge, that even though over three years have passed, I still recall it vividly. Since then, she has been high on my list of singers I would like to see more of, and I have been checking listings and press releases, looking for her name. At last, she's back, and though this new show is quite different from what her MetroStar turn led me to expect—more about that later—both it and Roe's work in it are excellent.
Directed by Lennie Watts, the show is about the women characters who populated film noir—dangerous women, "the kind of women who would just as soon kill you as love you," Roe tells us. (Or maybe she said "…just as soon love you as kill you"; it works both ways, and either way you get the point.) The enterprise is meticulously crafted, with nothing extraneous and every element in service to the theme: Roe's perceptive and keenly observed dialogue, the song choices, the atmospheric and colorful (well, noir) arrangements by musical director Steven Ray Watkins (his most nuanced work in some time), Roe's musical interpretations, and even her hats.
Roe begins with Cy Coleman and David Zippel's "Theme from City of Angels," delivered with a hard edge and with a driving undercurrent in the accompaniment. This makes for not only a distinctive opening number, but one that is especially apt, for in City of Angels, attitude and style rule, influencing all of the creative contributions to that singular musical—as they do in Roe's show.
With "Harlem Nocturne" (Earl Hagen, Dick Rogers), all of the elements combine to create the quintessential bluesy midnight mood. Roe discusses how the image of what it means to be a "good wife" changed over time, and follows this with an ironic take on Kim Gannon and Luckey Roberts's "Moonlight Cocktail" in which she projects a jaundiced view of the song's idyllic portrait of love and marriage. She delivers "Frank's Wild Years," a Tom Waits jazz monologue that, with its references to arson and a blind Chihuahua with a skin disease, couldn't be more cold and cynical if it tried—both Waits and Roe perfectly capturing the film noir sensibilities. This leads into a mash-up of Peter Matz's "Gotta Move" and Bobby Troup's "(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66"; the terrific arrangement gives Route 66 a feeling of hysterical urgency. Kudos not only to Roe and musical director Watkins, but also to Watkins on piano, Michael Blanco on bass, and Tim Lykins on percussion.
Not everything in the show is hard or dark. Roe has supplied new music and additional lyrics to Frank Lazarus and Dick Vosburgh's "Doin' the Production Code" from A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine to create "Mr. Hays," a send-up of the notorious and monumentally idiotic Motion Picture Production Code that held sway in Hollywood for a few decades. It's a lot of fun. (Just in case you're not familiar with the Code and the Hays Office that enforced it, among its repressive decrees were that no screen kiss could last more than six seconds, married couples could not be shown to share a bed, seduction is never a proper subject for comedy, and ministers of religion are never to be used as comic characters or villains.) Also, Roe tells a charming story about her 82-year-old grandmother—but rest assured, this is not a lapse into autobiographical self-indulgence; it serves the show.
Roe opens an Homage to Bogie segment with "Key Largo" (Benny Carter, Karl Suessdorf, Leah Worth), and segues into "Bogart" and "James Cagney," both by Nik Kershaw. Actually, she sings a severely truncated version of "Key Largo," which is a pity for two reasons: (1) while the second two songs are hip and fit the show's agenda, they're not very interesting, and (2) Roe does such a good job on the "Key Largo" extract, she left me hungry to hear what she would do with the entire, far superior song. Then in a clever and entertaining bit, she inserts her own dialogue into an audio playback of Bogart interrogation scenes from radio broadcasts of The House on 92nd Street and The Maltese Falcon. She goes directly from this delightful playfulness into a pairing of Noël Coward's "Mad About the Boy" and Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh's "A Moment of Madness." Unfortunately, the humorous lead-in and the inapposite bright tempo extinguish the emotional impact the songs might and should have had. She almost turns that around with a more dramatic reading of the songs the second time through, but then she checks even that potential emotional recovery by ending with a reference back to the interrogation. Neatly constructed, but not as satisfying as if she did the radio routine on its own, then followed that with killer renditions of the songs.
The evening's determination not to stray from the show's theme comes at a price; to reverse a Joni Mitchell lyric, "something's gained but something's lost." On the plus side, the show is all of a piece—a smartly conceived, expertly executed whole. On the other side, this approach—more specifically, its resolve to stay true to the film noir aesthetic—leaves little room for emotional exploration. For example, Roe delivers "You Don't Know What Love Is" (Don Raye, Gene De Paul) with the mood and attitude that the lyric calls for, but her interpretation is not heartfelt. We may be impressed, but we're not moved. Her fine rendition of Earl Brent and Matt Dennis's "Angel Eyes" comes closest to being its and Roe's own expression rather than existing to serve the show's concept. But the great breakout occurs at the end of the evening: after Roe tells us that it has been 30 years since she last did her own cabaret act, she sings "As If We Never Said Goodbye" (Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black, Christopher Hampton). It is now her talking to us through her singing, and it is very touching.
At the MetroStar Talent Challenge, Roe sang Tom Waits's "Martha." Her performance was deeply moving. I don't mean to take anything away from the new show's accomplishments—everyone associated with this endeavor deserves to be commended. It's just that I was hoping Billie would once again make me cry.