Photo Credit: Natasha Castillo
Laurie Beechman Theatre
May 4, 2019 – 3PM
When I was a freshman in college, I took an astronomy course in which the professor tried to get us to comprehend the sheer magnitude of the universe. I remember my own fleeting flash of comprehension, and how I couldn’t hold onto it without feeling as if my head would explode.
That is how I feel about stage talent in New York City. The sheer number of brilliant and accomplished performing artists—paying to play tiny clubs, often less than half-full, while working day jobs (or pursuing demanding careers unrelated to performing), unknown outside of a small circle of family, friends, and that rare species, cabaret cognoscenti—staggers me. Not only that, it infuriates me. Not (as you might think) because of the competition these artists represent to my own performing career, but because they deserve way, way more opportunities, recognition, audience, and compensation for the art they make and share with such open-hearted generosity.
Those Girls are a prime example of this phenomenon. This supremely entertaining, MAC Award-winning quartet—Eve Eaton, Rachel Hanser, Karen Mack, and Wendy Russell—debuted their latest show, “Those Girls Sing The Boys, Volume 1” to a gratifyingly packed house last weekend: fifteen four-part original arrangements of material written (for the most part) and made famous by male singers. The repertoire ranged from Dean Martin (Ain’t That A Kick In The Head by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen) to Kansas (Carry On, Wayward Son by Kerry Livgren) to Sweeney Todd’s “Johanna” (Stephen Sondheim), with various explorations down side-paths in between. From start to finish, this show was a highly original, high-energy, witty home run, ear candy that engaged the mind, as the unpretentious performers engaged with their crack musicality, splendid voices, precision, warmth, humor, and personal connectedness to the material.
Music director Steven Ray Watkins and director Lennie Watts conspired to create the vocal arrangements, which for the most part dressed familiar songs in gorgeous, often retro-hip new clothes, but didn’t go quite so far as to give the songs a total makeover. For instance, the Elvis Presley hit Can’t Help Falling In Love (Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore, and David George Welss) showed off the quartet’s smooth precision in the legato close-harmony opening, then broke into a lush doo-wop interlude reminiscent of The Fleetwoods.
The arrangers are masters of the art of juxtaposition, the most inspired example of which was “Devil’s Rap,” which interwove Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody (Freddie Mercury) with the Charlie Daniels Band’s The Devil Went Down To Georgia (Daniels, Tom Crain, Taz DiGregorio, Fred Edwards, Charles Hayward, and James Marshall). The rococo fantasia of Bohemian Rhapsody functioned as the devil’s inner monologue in the story of the Georgia boy who plays a fiddling contest with the devil.
For sheer ebullience, nothing topped the “Stevie Wonderful” medley, a dizzying parade of hooks and quotes from Stevie Wonder’s catalog of hits. The medley led off with the simple flute riff which opens My Cherie Amour (Wonder, Sylvia Moy, and Henry Crosby), but in ravishing close harmony—a perfect translation from Wonder’s vision to Those Girls’ idiom.
There wasn’t much patter, but each Girl found a way to introduce a number or two with a winningly personal touch. They brought a personal interpretation to the material as well. In Billy Joel’s Leave A Tender Moment Alone, each Girl seemed to be telling her own personal story about intimacy’s sometimes awkward progress, which allowed me really to take the lyric in for the first time.
Soprano Eve Eaton, a sparkling, striking presence, brought that same deep connection to her featured vocal on a medley juxtaposing the Doobie Brothers’ Takin’ It To The Streets (Michael McDonald) with The Who’s Baba O’Riley (Pete Townshend). She was dynamic, physically graceful and precise, and utterly present throughout the show, the most compelling of the four.
Not that the others were in any way uncompelling. Karen Mack seemed to burn a slow fuse, revealing her supple chops and emotional depths bit by bit. Wendy Russell’s glorious alto bubbled and rippled like the sound of cold water on a hot day. Diminutive Rachel Hanser was poised and adorable, the most reserved of the quartet.
Watts’ direction kept the show lively and varied, from the choreography of The Jackson 5’s The Love You Save (Berry Gordy, Freddie Perren, Alphonzo Mizzell, and Deke Richards) to the still focus of Johanna, in a four-part arrangement that conjured the Fifth Dimension. The band, comprising Watkins on piano, Ted Stafford on guitar and ukelele, Matt Scharfglass on electric and acoustic bass, and Don Kelly on drums, contributed to the excitement with driving rhythms, shifting textures, juice, and precision.
Those Girls rerprise their show at the Beechman on Monday, June 3, at 7 p.m. Try not to miss it–but if you do, there’s always “Those Girls Sing The Boys, Volume 2” to look forward to. I know I’m looking forward to it!