Elaine St. George

May 8, 2011 | By

“InspiRAYtion: The Musical Legacy of Ray Charles”

Metropolitan Room  –  April 27, May 3, 4, 9

Elaine St. George may not have done many shows in the fourteen years since I first saw her sing, but to paraphrase a remark Spencer Tracy made about Katharine Hepburn in Pat and Mike, what she’s done has been “cherce”. Two qualities have distinguished everything she’s presented: intelligence and wit. Add to that her voice, which over the past few years has developed into an even more beautiful instrument: a mezzo with the crystalline clarity one often associates with sopranos. Finally there are her interpretations: I’ve never known her simply to choose a good song and merely sing it well; rather, she approaches each song purposefully, with a distinctive point of view. Her current offering, which celebrates the Ray Charles songbook, is no exception.

Early in the proceedings, St. George makes it clear that she and her collaborators (musical director and pianist Ross Patterson, bassist Adam Armstrong) do not intend to replicate Charles’s arrangements or style. Instead, they use his original treatments as jumping-off places—and as she says, sometimes they jump farther than others. Collaborators is very much the right word to use here, for throughout the evening, the arrangements and instrumental accompaniment make an invaluable contribution, and all elements seem at one with each other.

The Ray Charles songbook reflects his catholic taste in music. So, too, this show. For example, one would not think of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'” as Charles material, but he recorded it and sang it many times in concert; here it is given a sunny, playful interpretation, with a striking jazz arrangement that makes us listen afresh. It’s followed by a medley of selections more recognizably in the Ray Charles groove, “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” “This Little Girl of Mine,” and “This Little Light of Mine,” the first two formally credited to Charles, himself, and the third by Harry Dixon Loes; not only does this work as a musical number, it also provides St. George the opportunity to make a wry comment about Charles’s writing.

That’s just one of many pointed and funny observations she makes over the course of the show—commentary that displays the wit and intelligence I alluded to in my opening paragraph. Contrasting his personal conduct with the sentiments he chose to express in song, she sings “Come Live with Me” (Felice & Boudleaux Bryant), a celebration of traditional romantic relationships; as befits the sentiment, she gives it a lovely, heartfelt interpretation.

St. George performs Buck Owens’s “Crying Time” without the emotional schmaltz that often characterizes country music (and which Ray Charles brought to his rendition); hers is a more gentle expression of pain and sadness, and as a result, it is that much more affecting. On the other hand, a pairing of Curley Williams’s “Half as Much” and Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” cooks with the juices of country, rock ‘n’ roll, and R&B—and it’s terrific.

Three numbers have an especially potent emotional impact. St. George’s rendition of Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” is exquisitely focused and introspective, so we feel as though we were eavesdropping on something very private and personal. She fills the Gershwins’ “How Long Has This Been Going On?” with reflective, tender wonder, and she pairs a passionate “The Long and Winding Road” (Lennon & McCartney) with Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell’s “Georgia on My Mind,” which she infuses with understated but palpable longing. Superb work on all of them.

In this evening of contours and contrasts, we also get a performance of Melanie Safka’s “What Have They Done to My Song Ma” that is even more freewheeling than Ray Charles’s version, if that’s possible, with St. George and the band throwing themselves into the number with infectious abandon. It’s outrageous and it’s great fun.


Category: Reviews

About the Author ()

Roy Sander has been covering cabaret and theatre for over thirty years. He’s written cabaret and theatre reviews, features, and commentary for seven print publications, most notably Back Stage, and for CitySearch on the Internet. He covered cabaret monthly on “New York Theatre Review” on PBS TV, and cabaret and theatre weekly on WLIM-FM radio. He was twice a guest instructor at the London School of Musical Theatre. A critic for BistroAwards.com, he is also the site’s Reviews Editor; in addition, he is Chairman of the Advisory Board of MAC.

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