Kenneth Gartman

November 4, 2018 | By | Add a Comment

When doing any cabaret show that takes the form of a travelogue, it must be very tempting to open the show with “Come Fly with Me” (Sammy Cahn, Jimmy Van Heusen). That ubiquitous anthem to soaring holidays is used in a television commercial even today, some seven decades after its composition. In his recent show at Don’t Tell Mama, When in Rome, Kenneth Gartman did not resist the temptation to start with that song, but he sure did resist the cliché. Intricately interweaving this warhorse with B‑52’s’ “Roam” (Catherine Pierson, Fred Schneider, Keith Strickland, Cynthia Wilson, Robert Waldrop) he made it his own original. Gartman, who did all the arrangements for this set himself, gave similar treatment to no fewer than four other mashups of two, sometimes three, songs. Normally five medleys in one set lasting just over an hour would be ill-advised. But not this time.

Pressed to name my favorite of this quintet of combinations, I’d have to say it was the startlingly hilarious pairing of the cheesy 1931 crooner chestnut “Lady of Spain” (Tolchard Evans, Robert Hargreaves, Stanley Damerell, Henry Tilsley) and Georges Bizet’s “Habanera” from Carmen. Further, Gartman sang “Lady of Spain” in an apt lounge‑y high baritone and “Habanera” entirely in falsetto French, thus in one shot demonstrating his wide vocal range and facility with Romance languages. (He also sang “La Vie en rose” (Louiguy, Édith Piaf, Marguerite Monnot) entirely in French, and “Cuando Estás Conmigo” (Abelardo Vázquez Ramos) entirely in Spanish. For this haunting love song, he was beautifully supported only by his music director, Troy Fannin, on guitar and vocals. The two other accomplished members of the backing trio were Marcel Hamel on bass and Mike Shapiro on drums. No piano was necessary, though I did miss the accordion on “Lady of Spain.” (Kidding.) Director Lennie Watts cast his usual warmly efficient spell over the proceedings.

Yet, the places Gartman travels to in this show remained intensely personal, starting with his schoolboy bus trips (25 states in 33 days!) out of his remote West Texas hardscrabble home—for which he retains an admirable fondness despite his having left it well behind him. Before channeling his inner Willie Nelson with the lovely “What I Like About Texas” (Gary P. Nunn), Gartman cracked, “Texans have a pride in their state that is hard to understand .if you’re not from there.” His more recent high-end travel appears to have been Euro-centered, and his favorite city just might be Rome. Hence the title song of this show, “When in Rome” (Cy Coleman, Carolyn Leigh), which is always welcome if only for the delicious Leigh rhyming of “snappily” with “Napoli.” Still, Gartman included the possibility of lesser destinations in “Welcome to Nowhere” (David Yazbek, from The Band’s Visit). And, while not too overtly political, he featured two patriotic medleys that in lesser hands and voice might have been cringe-inducing: “The Hands that Built America” (U2) combined with “Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears” (Brendan Graham); and the far better-known “America the Beautiful” (Samuel Ward, Katharine Lee Bates), “This Land is Your Land” (Woody Guthrie), and “God Bless America” (Irving Berlin) The latter tryptic, newly reimagined and interwoven, was actually tear-inducing.

When in Rome
Don’t Tell Mama – October 24, 25

Category: Reviews


About the Author ()

Robert Windeler is the author of 18 books, including biographies of Mary Pickford, Julie Andrews, Shirley Temple, and Burt Lancaster. As a West Coast correspondent for The New York Times and Time magazine, he covered movies, television and music, and he was an arts and entertainment critic for National Public Radio. He has contributed to a variety of other publications, including TV Guide, Architectural Digest, The Sondheim Review, and People, for which he wrote 35 cover stories. He is a graduate of Duke University in English literature and holds a masters in journalism from Columbia, where he studied critical writing with Judith Crist. He has been a theatre critic for Back Stage since 1999, writes reviews for, and is a member of The Players and the American Theatre Critics Association.

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