By Philippa Kiraly
S’Wonderful how a Fascinatin’ Rhythm can get your feet tapping at Meany Hall to something By Strauss, but I’d Rather Charleston on Broadway in Summertime with The Man I Love even if he considers A Woman is a Sometime Thing.. No matter if you Soon say Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, They Can’t Take that Away From Me. I have my Rhapsody in Blue forever and Someone to Watch Over Me.
That’s what you could have felt Saturday night at Meany Theater, with a stage backdrop of Broadway and all its lights and in front a grand piano, a bench with a discarded newspaper on it and a city trash basket beside, under a streetlight. It was just like being there, with Leon Bates at the piano, and baritone Robert Sims and soprano Louise Toppin singing and acting all these songs and more besides.
It made for Some Enchanted Evening (couldn’t resist putting that in though it wasn’t on the program, not being by Gershwin) on the UW World Music and Theatre Series.
This was a cleverly put together show, with the songs threaded together portraying episodes in the life of a married couple, spats and all.
Sims is both a good actor and fine baritone who inhabited the songs, his body language and every note bringing them to life as he sat feigning disinterest on the bench with the neswpaper, or swung on the lamp post or leant forward in ardor. Toppin, an equally fine high soprano, is less of an actor, and in the first half of the program was less convincing as to who she was. In the second half, which had more operatic songs, from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and in By Strauss, she came to her full potential with remarkably easy-soounding technique, spot-on pitch and more richness to her role.
Bates began the program with a medley of Gershwin melodies he arranged in a Broadway Overture. Every one was familiar, his arrangements skillful, but he kept the style and often the tempos too much the same, ended up sounding like what you’d hear from a good restaurant pianist filling the background. Only briefly towards the end did he enliven it a bit.
Opening the second half his arrangements for piano only of Someone to Watch Over Me had a similar problem. It was even slower and made me think of cheek-to-cheek dancing on a very small space in the 1940s and 50s. Fascinatin Rhythm, again piano only, did better. Bate’s arrangements are imaginative, just needing more pizzazz and immediacy to them.
The program ended with his excellent performance of Rhapsody in Blue, which drew a stanidng ovation.
You never know what you will get with the UW World Music and Theatre Series. It’s like a grab bag of surprising, unusual and often fascinatin’ programs, well worth the price of admission. The next up is South African guitarist, singer-songwriter and poet-activist Vusi Mahlasela on Febrary 27, an ambassador for Nelson Mandela in his global activities. After that is Samarabalouf, a gypsy jazz trio from France. Need I say more? Go towww.uwworldseries.org for tickets and info.