Surveying the scene of contemporary songwriters, one finds some who may have something to say, but whose lyrics are lacking in basic craftsmanship or marked by infelicitous word/phrase choices, or whose music is filled with short phrases but has a paucity of fulfilling melodic lines. And there are those whose work meets the technical requirements of good songwriting, but lacks the artistry and imagination that make a song come alive, make it special, memorable. (Of course, some songwriters are deficient in all departments.) Then there are a few who write real melodies, with intelligent, well-crafted lyrics that grab our attention and express thoughts and sentiments that hold our attention. Nicholas Levin belongs squarely in this last group.
Levin’s songs are interesting. When he covers territory that others before him have done, he finds a fresh path to those familiar destinations. For example, “Somewhere in This Song” expresses love obliquely, by playing with the nature of love songs, and “Warm as Winter” celebrates love through seasonal oxymorons. “Director’s Cut” uses film metaphors to deal comically with a relationship that had peaks and valleys, “The Olives of Regret,” a wry send-up of torch songs, employs fruit allusions to lament a relationship that went bad, and the bittersweet “Synesthesia” uses the phenomenon of, well, synesthesia to examine an uncertainly rekindled relationship. Lest this all sound a bit “clever,” I assure you it’s not; rather, it is intelligent, and the songs’ uniqueness sets them apart from (and above) songs that express their sentiments in more commonplace terms. And several of his songs cover completely new or far less traveled ground.
Not only are Levin’s lyrics well crafted and eloquent, they do some neat things with words. For example, “I make some sense out of my senses” or “They’ll take space enough to swing a cat, just not a cat that swings” or “I learned my heart had changed with my address” or “Sailors fainted in shock in their coquilles St. Jacques.” His wordplays and rhymes strike us because they are so appealing; however, they fit so perfectly in the context of their songs that they don’t call self-congratulatory attention to themselves. And he makes delightful use of colloquialisms. What’s more, as funny as his comic material is, his more serious songs are emotionally potent, sometimes cutting very deep. Levin’s music doesn’t have a unique, immediately identifiable sound—he composes in divers styles. What his songs have in common is that they are immediately attractive and unfailingly melodic.
This revue, which was directed by Peter Napolitano, does Levin’s work proud. The four singers in the company all turn in marvelous performances, and each of the four has a distinct style and personality. Mick Bleyer is playful and mischievous; I suspect he was born with a twinkle in his eye. With feline allusions, “Cat on a Leash” uses “leash” as a metaphor for marital ties, and Bleyer plays the roguish cat-with-an-itch-to-philander to a charming fare-thee-well. Yet he’s very touching leading the company on “Somewhere in This Song,” and on “The Resurrection Plant” he’s heartbreaking as a man aching to believe in himself again.
Kristin Maloney has solid musical theatre chops; she may look as though butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, but she can pull out the emotional stops. She turns in dramatically persuasive performances of “I Deserve Better (Than Me),” as a person resolving to get her life back on course, and the singular “Strong,” a song with such a specific and clear sense of character that you’d think it had been written for a book musical—but it wasn’t. She also delivers a beautifully considered rendition of the humorous “The Olives of Regret.”
Marissa Mulder is a master at exploring subtext and emotional nuance. She makes palpable the rueful ambivalence of “Synesthesia” and brings inner warmth to “Warm as Winter.” And she has a grand time with the hilarious, mean-but-adorable “The Night They Bathed in Paree.” She and Bleyer team up for a winning performance of the dear “Sing About Love.” As the pair were singing about how perfect their love was, I kept expecting an ironic zinger at the end. But the zinger was that there is no irony—the song is genuinely sweet. Which brings up another attribute of Levin’s work: benevolence. He writes from the perspective of someone who believes that the universe is fundamentally benevolent, and that man should expect to be able to achieve happiness, regardless of the difficulties he may have to overcome along the way.
Adam B. Shapiro has an ingratiating presence and the ability to deliver performances that are commanding but never excessive. A consummate interpreter of comic material, he mines all of the humor in “Director’s Cut” and “My Father’s Dream (Wolf Blitzer).” Equally skilled with non-comic fare, he brings an affecting tristesse to “I Used to Be from New York.” He and Maloney perform “You Can Co-depend on Me”—a light-hearted variant of Sondheim’s “Being Alive”—with musical comedy flair.
Contributing to the artistic success of the enterprise are musical director Matthew Martin Ward on piano and Boots Maleson on bass. All involved have collaborated to create an exceptional presentation of the work of an exceptional songwriter.
Metropolitan Room – May 2, June 21, September 24