Photo Credit:  Steward Noack of House of  Indulgence

Marquee Five
Back Porch Swing
Laurie Beechman Theater
March 1, 2019

Marquee Five reprised their newest show, “Back Porch Swing: Swingin’ Standards in Knockout Harmony,” at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, and that’s what it was: a knockout.

Of the thirteen numbers, eight were medleys, which means that musical director and arranger Adam West Hemming re-imagined a total of twenty-four songs in five-part harmony for “Back Porch Swing.” That amounts to (whips out calculator) 220 individual vocal parts, plus piano and bass arrangements.  Hemming’s complex, sophisticated, exciting arrangements were the meat of the show, but the quintet’s superb vocals, elegant presentation, and sheer charm were its champagne and dessert.

While the fivesome’s ensemble work is tight and precise, each performer projects a unique presence.  Bearish Hemming, the group’s tenor, is its earthiest member, growling through his solo turn on Minnie The Moocher (Cab Calloway, Irving Mills) and whipping the audience into the most enthusiastic call-and-response I have ever heard in a cabaret room.

Bass Mick Bleyer twinkles with good humor, whether he’s providing swoony, liquid legit vocals, or personalizing a lyric with unforced and endearing originality (Steppin’ Out With My Baby (Irving Berlin), Mack The Knife (Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill)).

Alto Sierra Rein’s vocal versatility is well-known in New York’s cabaret community, and kudos to Hemming for showcasing it in featured vocal lines that swooped thrillingly from deep in her chest register up into the stratosphere.  A deeply grounded performer, her un-showoffy featured turns (I’ll Be Seeing You (Irving Kahal, Sammy Fain) and Stompin’ At The Savoy (Benny Goodman, Edgar Sampson, Chick Webb, Andy Razaf)) were riveting in their simplicity and vocal luster.

Powerhouse soprano Vanessa Parvin bore herself as a kind of postgraduate Disney princess–graceful, gracious, somewhat remote. Backed by the group in a witty arrangement, she brought a touch of Betty Boop to Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant More (introduced by Madonna in the film “Dick Tracy”)—vocally breathtaking but more in the spirit of musical theatre than cabaret.

It was the first full-length Marquee Five show for Rebecca Graae, who replaces the group’s original mezzo Julie Reyburn.  Fresh off two years as lead soloist with Viking Ocean Cruises, she brought a soloist’s sensibility to her featured spots, leaning into each one with her distinctive, jewel-like tone and tasteful pop embellishments. 

The set list, mostly classics of the big-band era, was well-chosen to showcase the creativity and variety of Hemming’s arrangements. Chattanooga Choo Choo (Marc Gordon, Harry Warren), the high-energy opening number, was all about brassy five-part hamonies.  In the “I Got Gershwin” medley (Ira Gershwin, George Gershwin), the group displayed its formidable musicality with Rhapsody In Blue in a five-part vocalise transcribed from the orchestral score, then slid into a head-spinning treatment of Fascinating Rhythm and I Got Rhythm, sequentially and then in counterpoint.  Hemming juxtaposed There Goes The Ballgame (Fred Ebb, John Kander) with Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Razaf, “Fats” Waller, Harry Brooks), de-emphasizing complex vocal interplay to let the songs’ lyrical interplay reveal a hidden story.  In “Indigo Blues” (Mood Indigo (Mills, Albany “Barney” Bigard/Duke Ellington), Sophisticated Lady (Mitchell Parish, Ellington/Mills), Nature Boy (Eden Ahbez)), Hemming interwove all three songs in stunning counterpoint, creating a wistful, melancholy mood piece, almost a one-act play with three characters.  There was even a jug-band interlude, in which all five singers jammed to the “Savoy Jumpin’” medley on ad hoc noisemakers: penny-whistle, bottle and stick, cocktail shaker full of beans, and two twisty-handled bar spoons that Hemming rubbed together like a kind of nightlife-themed güiro.  Throughout the show, Hemming kept us on our toes with ever-shifting voicings and unexpected harmonies.

The scene changes between songs, as the ensemble draped themselves over stools, formed a line, or separated into backing quartet and featured soloist, were just enough: simple, effective, and refreshing to the eye.  The women made a matched trio in subtly different knee-length black cocktail dresses and black heels—and they matched aurally too, achieving the illusion of a single voice with their impeccably-tuned unison.

If I had one quibble, it was with balance: at times, when these five big voices were all singing together, the sheer volume prevented my ear from disentangling the anchoring line from the supporting harmonies—which was a shame, as I didn’t want to miss a single note of this ensemble’s flabbergasting artistry. 

Joe Goodrich supported at the piano, with Matt Scharfglass on acoustic bass.

Marquee Five will reprise their rock/pop extravaganza “8-Track Throwback” on May 31st at 7pm at the Laurie Beechman.  Go!  This is world-class entertainment from an electrifying ensemble.