review: colleen mchugh

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Colleen McHugh: Spring Forward (and Blossom)
with Tedd Firth, Steve Doyle, Sean Harkness

The Duplex, 61 Christopher Street
April 19, 2012 at 7pm
performer web site
Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee

The Duplex feels like home now, after just a few visits. Christopher Street subway stop, up the stairs to the second floor with the familiars, and I know to ask for a seat up front.  I am again joined by the luminous, be-hatted, and this night quite vocal and a bit bawdy Julie Wilson who appears to be quite a fan of our evening’s entertainer. Colleen McHugh and her band members (Tedd Firth on piano, Steve Doyle on bass, and Sean Harkness on guitar) swing the evening, honor the songwriters, evoke some singers, and thrill us all.

The last time I visited with McHugh in this reverent (and raucous) cabaret space it was an evening St. Patrick’s Day-adjacent, the tunes that all spoke of Irish or Green (or both at the same time), and we were offered green-foiled candies to honor the occasion. That evening’s table of three Colleen’s seated behind me, I discover after this performance, have returned for this follow-up. This evening I meet at my table another of McHugh’s intriguing friends — a comedy writer who has known her since their joint days doing comedy in Chicago. (Have I convinced you that McHugh attracts a fascinating crowd?) This evening we honor the spring season and the beloved performer Blossom Dearie (long on my personal set list), sometimes both at the same time. It’s family, it’s cabaret church, it’s a convening of familiars old and new.

McHugh reinforces my appreciation of her approach by gracing her presentations, in established cabaret style, with rarely performed verses.  “Blue Skies”, “I’m In Love Again”, and we’re hearing Bobby Short, with her own twists on his approach. Julie Wilson down front is called out as clapping first and clapping last (“I’m glad you noticed!” she remarks), and we are encouraged to be “more like Julie.”  In McHugh’s engaging delivery this is not cloying but charming — we’re already having a delicious time.  Blossom is in the air with “Moonlight Savings Time,” and “This is a Fine Spring Morning” during which I listen anew, with new appreciation, to the lyric “This is my first spring morning in love.”  “Spring is Here” should make a Rodgers and Hart fan of any neophyte.

And oh oh oh but the delight in the lyrics to the Jerome KernDorothy Fields tune “April Fooled Me” (new to me this hearing) with the sequence. “It was not really spring nor really love / You were alike, you two / Restless April Fooled Me / Darling, so did you.”

“It Might As Well Be Spring”, in classic Dearie style, totally in French. Showing her standup, manage-the-heckler chops, McHugh replies to a man in the audience who decides to interact with her and test her knowledge of French. She quiets him quickly. (I quietly note her absolute control in this moment, and wonder how she would roll with a full stand up act, with an occasional tune to charm.)  McHugh performs an enchanting improv song with lyrics inspired by an audience member’s story of a family wedding at which she in her 30s flirted with a young man late discovered was only 15. This all resulted in the marvelous tune titled in-the-moment “Oh, Shit, He’s a Minor.” The set stays strong to its pre-finale end — “Being Green” (a reprise from the March show) and “You Can’t Rush Spring” (a delectable Ann Hampton Callaway reprise too), wrapping with a familiar Dearie treatment of “‘Deed I do”.  (The encore, intended as a tribute to the upcoming April 24th 70th birthday of Barbra Streisand, is performed as a duet with the delightful Natalie Douglas evoking Barbra and Donna Summer‘s medley of “No More Tears” and “Enough is Enough.” This was not a show highlight for me, as much as I love Barbra of other eras, perhaps because our live performers attempt to replicate the original arrangement too closely that relied on era-specific studio effects.)

Happy birthday Ms. Streisand.  Hello Ann Hampton Callaway. Blossom is always on my set list and I’m just enchanted that she is deeply established on the list of Colleen McHugh.

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 20, 2012)

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