review: colleen mchugh prêt-à-porter

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Colleen McHugh: “Prêt-à-Porter: Cole Porter’s French Connections”
with Tedd Firth (piano), Aaron Weinstein (violin), Matt Munisteri (guitar), Steve Doyle (bass) and Harry Allen (tenor sax).

Birdland, 315 West 44th Street
July 9, 2012 at 7pm
event web site
Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee

Colleen McHugh at Birdland July 9, 2012. Image by Stephen Sorokoff.

My world has been in a bit of a whirl the past few weeks, as I have attended (and processed) in a new status as a member of the Drama Desk more theatre than I have been in a while. My comfortable routines of seeing productions on my own time, and finding my own performers in my own way have been a bit scrambled in general.  But this evening I make a space between theatre outings to visit Birdland, a venue I have grown to love, to commune with a performer I have also grown to appreciate deeply. I have been following Colleen McHugh for about six years now, first in Chicago and now in New York. Several visits with her and the cabaret crowd who follows her have reinforced my initial reactions. She is the real deal, the whirl stops when she sings, we gladly live with her through the set list she has crafted in themes of storytelling, and smile and feel along with her fans. Including tonight — as has been true for every New York City McHugh performance I have enjoyed — the be-hatted and luminous and often raucous fan enthusiast Julie Wilson who is tonight resplendent in an orangey-red hue that just pulses with life in the sea of dark colors in the summer evening audience.

McHugh and her musicians this evening take us on a journey of appreciation of the world of Cole Porter as he wrote for stage and screen about the Continent and often in particular about Paris.  Some lyrics take us to France — from “C’est Magnifique”, one of many written for and some excised from Can-Can on her tonight’s set list to the inevitable “I Love Paris” that is lovely rather than predictable in McHugh’s hands. And other lyrics just take us to romantic settings.  McHugh develops a sexy duet with her sax man Harry Allen in “All of You” with some of my favorite lyrics that can be simplistic in some hands but here are magnificently evocative — “the east, west, north, and the south of you.”  Another sexy sax love fest happens with a delicious “I’m in Love Again” that destroys me.

Though a bit more subdued this evening than I’ve seen her in the past, McHugh shows her standup skills and flying-by-the-seat-of-her-pants brilliance and charm through the show’s patter.  From “It’s my show so suck it” (during which Ms. Wilson loses it, with lovely charm), and her commentary after her solemn ruminations that explode into a Broadway belt in “Do I Love You” we parse with her the importance of asking key questions and listening (oh yes, we must listen) to the answers.  Ah the wisdom of the well crafted Porter lyrics.  Love is not all fun and games.

The ensemble under the music direction of piano man Ted Firth shows its chops throughout the evening.  Several special instrumental interludes for me come in “You Do Something To Me” and “When Love Comes to Call” (another tune cut from the original production of 1953’s Can-Can) in which swinging sweet close harmonies involving the saxophone and others make me swoon more than a little. “You Don’t Know Paree” comes at us as a gentle waltz rather than a knowing nudge, and enchants me on the way.  In almost every tune I learn a bit more about sax side man Harry Allen, and will be watching out later this month for his show at Feinstein’s with Rebecca Kilgore called  The Jazzy Side of Judy Garland.

McHugh is generous with her praise of her fellow musicians and generous with her enumeration of their own upcoming shows and release parties, including a show tonight at Joe’s Pub for guitarist Matt Munisteri.  McHugh’s show on Monday night is all about Cole Porter and love in pain and love that’s true. The final tune of the evening from the 1956 film High Society shows me all the McHugh can do with what is often lyrical and melodic schmaltz and here, in her hands, augmented with the skilled harmonies of her colleagues, we feel the power of what can feel like a silly sentiment — “True Love” indeed. And I need to get my hands on a copy of the new recording featuring all these musicians and these lovely tunes: Prêt-à-Porter: Cole Porter’s French Connections.

© Martha Wade Steketee (July 10, 2012)

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