[article as originally published in Theater Pizzazz, September 12, 2016.]
[featured image caption: [L-R] Natalie Douglas and music director Brian Nash. Image by Kevin Alvey.]
Natalie Douglas, a New York cabaret stalwart originally from LA, calls New York City’s Birdland jazz haven her artistic home base. The charming Jim Caruso noted in his introduction to “Stevie Songs: The Music of Stevie Nicks & Stevie Wonder” that this was Douglas’s 50th performance on the Birdland stage. She’s a familiar, the room loves her, the warmth is genuine. She has earned her place, and has taken that freedom to assemble a mashup of tunes by two artists important to her with vastly differing styles who shared the airwaves (back when we talked about artists on the “airwaves”) during her youth. Douglas brought us into her rec room where she sang along with a mix tape of her favorites, with a sound that evoked that experience to uneven success.
Her enjoyment in recalling the feeling behind the set list is palpable and personal. “These are the sounds of the soundtrack of my childhood and my adolescence” she told us. But the show is uneven on a few counts. The Stevie Nicks tunes suffer most as they don’t survive the nostalgia factor. Those who already appreciate “After the Glitter Fades” and “Silver Springs” and “Leather and Lace” (on which she was joined in a duet by her husband Billy Joe Young who she lovingly describes as “the cutest boy in every room”) and “Gold Dust Woman” and “Rhiannon” will sway and sing along under their breath, indeed. But the tunes are not that tonally or lyrically interesting, and the band, led by musical director Brian Nash on piano, doesn’t assist in communicating why anyone would really be moved by any of the Nicks portion of the program. The 1970s Top 40 smooth and over-pedaled keyboard and overloud and muddy percussion (Joe Choroszewski) in particular hurt the cause. The tribute band assemblage of monotonously similar Nicks tunes failed to move me, as they almost always fail to move me, and the musicians don’t make something new with the material.
The Stevie Wonder songs, on the other hand, offer varied melodies and lyrics, and some sweetly effective performances. Lyrics resonate, melodies and styles vary, and I found myself surprised that Wonder had crafted some particular tunes. Douglas gives “All in Love is Fair” a sweet Karen Carpenter unadorned and enchanting vocal treatment. And while the band had nowhere near the funk required for the Wonder tune “Tell Me Something Good” we know as performed by Chaka Kahn, Douglas had such great fun performing that we all went with her. While the “funk-challenged” band could have deep-sixed “You Haven’t Done Nothing,” the political timely resonance of the lyrics raised the performance of a tune we are reminded was released around the time of President Nixon’s resignation – “we are amazed but not amused.” The encore of Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” has its own delightful contemporary political resonance, used in recent Democratic political contests, brought a smile to the face, yet was a performance opportunity lost. This might now, especially after a long act of tonally similar Nicks tunes interspersed in the line-up, be a sing-along tune rather than a seated and passively received musical experience.
Douglas has a marvelous stage presence and a delightful vocal instrument, and crafted a mildly entertaining mix-tape evening, complete with inter-tune patter. We learned what the songs meant to her as nostalgia. What she and her band did not achieve at this point with this show is the sound and the story related to these particular tunes to allow us in the audience to feel more than the experience of a long car trip mix tape experience with a failing speaker system.
Stevie Songs: The Music of Stevie Nicks & Stevie Wonder took place Monday, September 5 at 7 pm at Birdland (314 West 44th Street). Tel: 212.581.3080. http://www.nataliedouglas.com