Review by Greg Haymes
You serve up a cabaret tribute to Peggy Lee, and you neglect to perform “Is That All There Is?”
Not only is the song Peggy Lee’s last big hit – it reached No. 11 on the Billboard Top 100 Singles chart in the midst of the psychedelic rock revolution of 1969 – but it’s also the only recording to earn Lee a Grammy Award. And it’s simply a quintessential cabaret song – theatrically spoken, world-weary verses with boozy, Weimar-soaked choruses, all of which are drenched in disappointment and decadence.
But, no, the song wasn’t included in the cabaret concert “Fever: The Peggy Lee Songbook,” performed at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center’s Spa Little Theater in Saratoga Springs on Friday evening in front of a woefully small crowd. (Ushers walked throughout the intimate theater just prior to the performance, encouraging members of the audience to please fill in the empty front ‘n’ center seats.)
Connie James was the vocalist, a next-to-the-last-minute replacement for Wesla Whitfield, who was forced to bow out of the booking due to illness. But Whitfield’s husband, Michael Greensill, was at the piano, and he pointed out that James had actually premiered “Fever” two years ago, so there was no question that she was familiar with Lee’s considerable musical legacy.
The 70-minute performance included a pair of instrumental selections by the backing trio – the opening “If Dreams Come true” and a mid-set rendition of “Waiting for the Train to Come,” which featured an impressive bass solo by Saratoga Springs High School alum (class of ’84) Brian Cassier.
And James nailed the tortured torch ballads – the smoldering “Black Coffee” and the encore, “What’s New?” – digging into the emotional depths of heartache. She also scored high marks with Lee’s bruised-ballad arrangement of “Bye Bye Blackbird,” a skittering rendition of “It’s a Good Day,” the slinky blues of “Why Don’t You Do Right” and a steamy, piano-less sashay through “Fever,” anchored by Cassier’s fingers nimbly dancing along the neck of his double-bass.
But musical director Greensill took the show on a couple of bewildering detours. He provided some overly cute barking, growling and yelping accompaniment to “He’s a Tramp” – composed and sung by Lee for Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp.” He also served up a woefully wrong-headed arrangement of the classic cowboy hit “Riders in the Sky,” slowing it way down and setting it to a semi-samba beat. The Ghost Riders must have been turning over in the graves. Or in the sky. Or wherever Ghost Riders go when things go bad…
In addition to unfathomable song selection and some befuddling arrangements, James was also battling some insurmountable sound problems, too. Her vocal mic cut out completely (not once, but twice) during the big Michel Legrand ballad “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?,” and the sibilance level was so high that there were more than a dozen moments throughout the show when James’ vocal emitted a full-fledged, mood-breaking, high-pitched whistle.
Hopefully, Bob Stillman’s “It Could Happen To You: A Man’s Musical Guide To Love” – the final show of SPAC’s three-part “Live From the Algonquin” cabaret series – will offer cabaret fans something more. Stillman – who was marvelous in the role of Beethoven at Capital Repertory Theatre’s knock-out production of “33 Variations” last year – takes the stage at 2:15 & 8pm today (Tuesday, August 28).
And just in case you don’t know Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?,” well, here it is:
“FEVER: THE PEGGY LEE SONGBOOK”
I Dreams Come True (instrumental)
I Never Knew > Lover
Why Don’t You Do Right
What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?
I Don’t Know Enough About You
He’s a tramp
Riders in the Sky
I Can Sing a Rainbow
Waiting For the Train to Come (instrumental)
It’s a Good Day
My Heart Belongs to Daddy
Bye Bye Blackbird
Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe
I Love Being Here With You