music

review: colleen mchugh

Colleen McHugh: Being Green
with Tedd Firth, Steve Doyle, Sean Harkness

The Duplex, 61 Christopher Street
March 22, 2012 at 7pm
performer web site
Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee

Colleen McHugh at microphone and Tedd Firth on piano. Image by Stephen Sorokoff.

This evening’s early arrival in the West Village allows me to amble slowly up Christopher Street from the east.  I usually bustle by Christopher Street on my way to performances at Barrow Street Theatre and Cherry Lane Theatre. Just shy of my destination I decide to step through the doors into the Stonewall Inn for the first time. Friendly vibes, early post work crowd, resonance with the past and present. When I emerge a short while later, charmed and sobered in equal measure by thoughts of the power of place and the power of political protest, I wander a few doorways further west to my entertainment destination — The Duplex. Performance space downstairs, bar upstairs, and cabaret tucked off in a corner. The upstairs bar/cabaret anteroom feels like a 1970s hideout: indoor/outdoor carpet, wipe down brown Naugahyde, and large porthole windows into the center of Village life. This rough-hewn introduction reminds me that it is the substance not the artifice that determines a quality musical experience for me. Julie Wilson, elegance personified, is here in the audience along with the rest of us to cheer on the fabulous Colleen McHugh and her musicians. The tucked away jewel of a cabaret room sways, once we were seated, with wit and wisdom, charm and fun, frivolity and heartfelt observations, courtesy of McHugh and her company of fine sidemen.

I was first captured by McHugh one night this past fall at the Cabaret Convention evenings at Rose Hall.  Comedic and vocal chops and a riveting presence on stage. Now some months later I am pleased to be treating myself to a full evening of her making. As dramaturg and singing fan, I assess the cabaret artist by her storytelling power within a song as well as her story-telling instincts for an entire set list.  What journey will we travel with her — a theme, a songwriters oeuvre, a mood?  Tonight we follow a season (in a way) through the color green, inspired in part by McHugh’s Irish roots, resonating with my audience mates — a table full of three women named Colleen sits beside me, one of whom is already a friend of the performer on stage and the other two who have come to see her for the first time. Friends in an instant, we are all connected by the energy in the room before the show starts.

McHugh enters, comments on her lovely new dress and her spanking new show honoring the color green.  As she notes that while she is a few days late for St. Patrick’s Day the theme is rich for plundering the whole year through. Elements of her themed offerings are labeled for us, heralded vaudeville style by the changing of cards, as appropriate, at stage right by a friendly green-adorned venue staff member.  Envy, hope, money, whimsy.  McHugh goes with the mood and we all go with her.

Some selections from her rich vocal offerings show the fun and facile workings of McHugh’s set-building brain. Hope is represented by “Somewhere That’s Green” — the fabulous ballad from the otherwise odd horror musical Little Shop of Horrors. Freshly minted newness (and it’s opposite) is represented by the heartbreaking Susan Werner tune about a woman with a wandering lover entitled “I Can’t Be New” — “I can’t be the girl you notice for the first time … There’s so much I can do but I can’t be new.”  Wise words honored by a wise interpretation and a rich vocal treatment. The Irish are honored by a goofy rousing Judy Garland tune (I learn McHugh does an entire Garland-themed show and I shall return for that) from Little Nellie Kelly (1940), performed in the movie while characters are marching down Fifth Avenue in their finery: “It’s a Great Day for the Irish.”  Singer/songwriter Ann Hampton Callaway‘s “You Can’t Rush Spring” honors nature in a rich beautiful way. And Kermit the Frog‘s image heralds what we all know, and most of us could sing along with her: “It’s Not Easy Being Green.”

Stalwart support provided by Tedd Firth on piano, Steve Doyle on bass, and Sean Harkness guitar.  I am moved, enthused, educated, enthralled and eager to hear more of McHugh at this and other venues.

© Martha Wade Steketee (March 23, 2012)

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