By Roy Sander
"Screen Gems – Songs of Old Hollywood"
Laurie Beechman Theatre - September 13, October 10, 17, 25, 26, February 8, March 5, 7, April 2, 26, 30
Sarah Rice is part of our theatrical history, having been the original Johanna in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street on Broadway. In her entertaining new cabaret show of songs from or about "old Hollywood," it is evident that thirty years later her voice remains a ravishing instrument. What's more, this show gives her the chance to demonstrate a range of acting skills that Johanna did not permit. Her considerable talents combine most strikingly in Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht's "Pirate Jenny." Not only is her acting commanding and her singing exemplary, she has modified Michael Feingold's English translation to create a version that has the grit of Feingold's but some of the lyricism of Marc Blitzstein's popular translation. The result is quite simply the best and most riveting rendition of "Pirate Jenny" I've ever heard. (OK, the connection with old Hollywood is a bit tenuous inasmuch as the 1931 film of Threepenny Opera was made in Germany, but doubtless Lotte Lenya paid a visit to Hollywood at one time or other).
About as far away from Brecht as one can possibly get is a lovely Disney segment: Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman's "The Age of Not Believing" (from Bedknobs and Broomsticks) and a medley of "I'm Wishing" and "Someday My Prince Will Come" (both by Larry Morey and Frank Churchill and both from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), all beautifully sung. Also in the anti-Brecht category is "He's So Unusual" (Al Lewis, Al Sherman, Abner Silver) a delightful novelty number from 1929 about a young man who clearly has no romantic interest in the singer in particular and, one suspects, in girls in general (he was "weak in his sheikin'"); Rice does it à la Helen Kane, who introduced it in Sweetie, and she's very funny.
Among the earliest selections in the show is a medley of "Hindustan" (Oliver G. Wallace, Harold Weeks, 1918) and "The Sheik of Araby" (Harry B. Smith, Francis Wheeler, Ted Snyder, written in 1921 in honor of Rudolph Valentino and The Sheik). The first time through, Rice does the latter song from the sheik's perspective as he tries to seduce the woman, then she sings it from the point of view of the object of his desire, who is clearly delighted that she gave in. Very nice. Speaking of giving in, eleven years later, Pola Negri introduced "Paradise" (Nacio Herb Brown, Gordon Clifford, from A Woman Commands), which was originally banned from radio play because the humming sections of the lyric were considered too arousing. Indeed, the song is overtly and rather startlingly sexual, but at the same time understated and elegant; Rice's performance is all of the above—and also charming, though if I may cavil, I think that stepping down into the audience mid-song is a distraction with insufficient payoff.
There are other impressive numbers, among them: a smoldering medley of "Temptation" (Nacio Herb Brown, Arthur Freed), "Jalousie" (Vera Bloom, Jacob Gade), and "Revenge" (Sam M. Lewis, Joe Young, Harry Akst); and an exquisitely interpreted pairing of Meredith Willson's "My White Knight" and "Bill" (Jerome Kern, P.G. Wodehouse, Oscar Hammerstein II). In addition, Rice does original versions of a couple of songs that are an order of magnitude better than the versions that became popular hits: "The Song from Moulin Rouge" (music by Georges Auric, English lyrics based on French lyrics by Jacques Larue), and the lovely theme from Romeo and Juliet, "What Is a Youth?" (music by Nino Rota, lyrics by Eugene Walter); both are lovely and richly atmospheric.
Rice's patter is informative and amusingly sly. JoAnn Yeoman directed, and Rice and Seth Weinstein supplied the arrangements. The very good accompaniment is provided by Weinstein on piano (he also does a swell job as the wishing-well echo), Ritt Henn on bass, and Bobby Sher on percussion.
In the performance I saw, there were occasional moments of clumsiness in the flow between numbers, and Rice seemed to hurry through the opening two songs, with not much specificity. I've seen her do both songs far better on previous occasions, so perhaps this was just one of those things. Finally, each performance has a different surprise guest. At this one, it was Sue Matsuki and Edd Clark, who joined Rice in Dietz & Schwartz's "Triplets." Though the number was appealing, I don't think having a guest spot is generally a good idea—and it's particularly questionable if the guest must learn a number especially for a single performance, as the result is likely to be less polished than the rest of the show.