Photo Credit: Jason Ellis
Christmas came early (or did Chanukah come late?) for those of us lucky enough to catch “Mischa Kischkum is OFF THE CHARTS (Songs You Don’t Know By Writers You Love)” at Don’t Tell Mama on December 20.
Mr. Kischkum is the mastermind behind this unusual show, which represents years of research, painstaking transcriptions, and a slew of Kischkum’s own original arrangements in styles ranging from country to rock to jazz to straight-up musical theatre, with a dash of Hawaiian guitar. His onstage collaborators—Steven Ray Watkins (piano, keyboard, additional vocals), Matt Scharfglass (bass), Don Kelly (drums), and Dan Busa (additional vocals)—aided him in realizing his vision with topnotch artistry.
Mr. Kischkum seemed delighted to be sharing his labor of love with the enthusiastic crowd, and his delight was infectious. His own artistry as a singer and actor are also topnotch, but it is his warmth and mischievous sense of humor that makes this performer particularly winning. Wearing a jungle-print neckerchief, he opened the show with a simper and an awkward curtsey before launching into “Avenue P” from Maurice Sendak and Carole King’s Really Rosie. It took me a minute to realize that he was actually singing as Rosie, the show’s little-girl protagonist, but it turned out to be the first hint of Mr. Kischkum’s prodigious range as a singing actor.
In the Noel Coward-esque patter song “Bon Vivant” (Dolan/Mercer), from Foxy, Mr. Kischkum wrung every ounce of comedy from Johnny Mercer’s brilliant internal rhymes (“skin a pear/after-dinner pear,” “Cheltenham/dwelt in ‘em,” “guardian/Edwardian/I beg your pardion”), in a pair of perfectly-rendered high-vaudeville accents (the Queen’s English and the Kaisar’s German). He trod the fine line between gravitas and bombast in “All Of My Laughter,” the 11 o’clock number from Albert Hague and parodist Allan Sherman’s only (flop) Broadway musical, The Fig Leaves Are Falling, without ever succumbing to the song’s inherent bombast. And he brought tears to my eyes with his heartfelt but restrained rendition of “Love, Look In My Window,” cut from Hello, Dolly! (Herman).
The range of Mr. Kischkum’s musical chops encompasses, in addition to his fine work as an arranger and his mastery of various vocal styles, guitar, piano, and some real fly scatting.
He paid particular tribute to one of our greatest living musical theatre writers, Lynn Ahrens, with three numbers from her stint as a contributor to TV’s long-running Schoolhouse Rock!. “The Great American Melting Pot” was particularly timely, and the audience whipped out their cheat sheets (inserted into the exhaustively informative multi-page program) to sing along with her setting of “The Preamble” (to the Constitution), on which she collaborated with our nation’s founding fathers.
After this variegated banquet of song, Mr. Kischkum brought the show to a satisfying close with two more familiar numbers: “The Rainbow Connection,” (Williams/Ascher), featuring the rarely-heard second and third verses; and finally, alone at the piano, Sondheim’s “So Many People” from Saturday Night, delivered as an open-hearted thank-you to the enchanted house.
Mr. Kischkum reprises his show at Don’t Tell Mama on Tue Mar 5 at 7, and Sun Mar 10 at 4. Jason Ellis directs.
video credit: Katie Kearns