By Robert Windeler
"When Harry Met the Duke"
Metropolitan Room - January 19, 27, 30, February 22
It must be getting harder to come up with titles, or even themes, for cabaret shows. Rosemary Loar has certainly tried hard with this one. The title refers to the show's running theme: when and whether Harold Arlen and Duke Ellington met. She begins to cover the subject well enough with her chat—although her assertion that her inspiration came from the film title "When Harry Met Sally" might have warned us that not all would mesh in this show dedicated to the music of the two composers. It's true that Arlen (born Hyman Arluck in 1905) and Ellington (born in 1899) were just six years apart in age. When Ellington left his four-year residency at The Cotton Club in 1931, Arlen and his lyric-writing partner Ted Koehler took over from Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh as songwriters for eight of the club's revues through 1943. But there's no evidence that the two men ever met during this period. Ellington and Arlen both went to Moscow in the 1930s, "but not at the same time," so they didn't meet there either.
Loar then turns to patter that attempts to link their musical influences. Arlen composed the score to two Broadway musicals with all-black casts: St. Louis Woman (lyrics by Johnny Mercer, 1946) and Jamaica (E.Y. Harburg, 1957). Arlen often injected bluesy feelings into his one-off compositions and incorporated a melancholy strain he said came from his father, a Jewish cantor. In later years Ellington elicited a religious strain in his music and regularly performed in cathedrals and churches. All also true, as far as it goes. But in the absence of more persuasive evidence connecting the two men, proof of linkage would have to come from the musical presentation.
Loar's opening number, a combination of Ellington's "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me" (Bob Russell) and Arlen's "Let's Fall in Love" (Koehler) is promising in a big-voiced, straight-ahead sort of way. The convincing arrangement is by her musical director, Frank Ponzio, who also spiritedly accompanies Loar on piano and arranged nine of her thirteen numbers. Loar is also in her wheelhouse singing two Arlen-Mercer songs later in her set: "Out of This World" and, from St. Louis Woman, "I Had Myself a True Love." But as the countless shows devoted solely to one or the other of these composers have demonstrated, Arlen and Ellington wrote in very different styles and they require different vocal styles. Loar falls short on such Ellington numbers as "Rockin' in Rhythm" (music co-written by Irving Mills, lyric by Lorraine Feather), "Hit Me With a Hot Note (and Watch Me Bounce)" (Don George), and "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" (Mills), the last of which Loar self-arranged and calls "Quando Swing." Her pairing of "I'm Beginning to See the Light" (Harry James, Johnny Hodges, Don George) and "I Didn't Know About You" (Russell), arranged by Don Rebic, diminishes both songs.
Loar is simply not a jazz singer, and not very good at impersonating one. To make up for this lack, she ventures all over the place physically and vocally. She whoops, she whispers, she overacts, she walks, she leans, she hits a high note and points to the sky. Try as she might, she can't scat. Loar also employs such ill-fitting terms as "cat" and "gig" to bolster her jazz credentials. What she does not do, most of the time, is consider, internalize or convey the meaning of lyrics.
But Loar's act really falls apart about three-fourths of the way in, when she is forced to admit that she can't prove that Ellington and Arlen ever met. To make up for her failed premise, she delivers a self-written and self-arranged title song that she says came to her in a dream. Instead of "Harry" (did anyone ever call Arlen that?) and Duke meeting, in Loar's lengthy exposition it's the "'A' Train" meeting "the Rainbow" ("Over…" or "Look to…," both Harburg, it hardly matters)—"at the corner of jazz and blues." Hmmm. (To her credit, Loar acknowledges that it was Billy Strayhorn who wrote the Ellington Band's theme song, "Take the 'A' Train.")