Robin Westle

November 21, 2019 | By | Add a Comment

1969 was famous as a year full of political tumult and social upheaval. Richard Nixon began what would be a troubled presidency in January. A draft lottery was instituted to conscript American men to fight in the prolonged conflict in Vietnam. And the Stonewall riots put the nascent Gay Liberation movement in the spotlight that summer. But there were other, less political, events that dominated the headlines that year, too. In her show at Don’t Tell Mama, In the Summer of ’69 (directed by Eric Michael Gillet), Robin Westle, summing up the year, mentions the Mets’ journey to victory in the World Series, America’s first lunar landing, and the ascendancy of Jack Nicholson as a film star.

If the show skips over some of the more serious headlines that year, it only makes sense, as Westle was an adolescent at the time, and she was dealing primarily with personal changes. That summer she went to camp as she had the previous year. But in the interim, she had “become a woman.” (The transition, she jokes, gave her a good excuse to opt out of plunges into the swimming pool.) Her story culminates in a memorable and amusing account of her and her fellow campers’ excursion to the legendary Woodstock music festival that August.

The music she includes is fairly wide-ranging. Mostly, she features pop songs from the year being celebrated. She opens with a Beatles title, George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” and follows i with Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” heard in the film Midnight Cowboy. But Westle also folds a couple of non-1960s songs into the mix, including “Summer of ’69” (Bryan Ferry, Jim Vallance) and Dar Williams’s “When I Was a Boy,” which has become a staple of cabaret shows recently and may be in danger of overexposure.

Scribbling on my notepad during the show, I repeatedly wrote the word “straightforward.” Westle takes a no-nonsense approach to the songs she sings. She doesn’t do a lot of embellishing or fancy tricks, although she begins “Hot Fun in the Summertime” (Sylvester Stewart, aka Sly Stone) as something of a ballad. Her clear and sturdy vocals are especially effective on the more robust songs, such as Grace Slick’s “White Rabbit” (sung to commemorate Westle’s introduction to cannabis by fellow campers) and Lennon and McCartney’s “Come Together.” On the other hand, a more-delicate song, Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” challenges her vocally. Perhaps she and musical director Tracy Stark could have found an arrangement for the number that better suited her musical strengths—maybe something closer to the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young rendition.

The highlight of the show is her description of the campers’ trek to Woodstock. Westle is very funny impersonating a stoned hippie confronting the parade of pubescent girls wending its way through the immense crowd, back to their sleeping area. She follows up by noting how the trip helped make her more aware of the larger world around her—a development she marks by singing a pair of songs from the Joan Baez songbook.

Stark provides solid support, both as pianist and backup vocalist. The piano interlude she gives us on “Come Together” is especially funky and delicious. Owen Yost assists ably on bass guitar (replacing Matt Scharfglass from the September shows)—I only wish his playing had been spotlighted a bit more. Westle herself strums guitar on one number.

Her loveliest musical moment is her last one: the encore number, “It’s Getting Better” (Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil), a solo hit for Cass Elliot in 1969. I can’t recall ever hearing this number sung in a cabaret show. But its insistent pulse and sunny melody make it worth another visit. Perhaps it could catch on and become the new “When I Was a Boy.”

In the Summer of ’69
Don’t Tell Mama  –  September 9, 15, November 10, December 30

Category: Reviews

About the Author ()

Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. In addition to reviewing for BistroAwards.com, he contributes regularly to theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com. Other reviews and articles have appeared in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

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