music

Mad Dogs and Englishmen at the Metropolitan Room

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[L-R] Simon Mulligan at the piano, Gregory Moore in his Coward-ness. Photo: Martha Wade Steketee

Tuxedos, shimmery evening dresses, fur wraps, and be-jeaned regular folks blend on this slightly close (weather-wise) and intimate (sentiment-wise) recent cabaret evening at New York City’s Metropolitan Room to journey back in time and directly into the core of a heartfelt musical reverie. Host and solo star Gregory Moore guides us to the mid-1950s, a time of cultural transitions, from swing to rock, from fancy evening dress to denim everywhere. This homage packed with Noel Coward tunes (or tunes he might have sung) is delivered by Moore through a Coward vocal lens, supported by the marvelous pianist Simon Mulligan. The music is set in time but timeless and the performances totally charming.

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Moore takes as his inspiration a 1955 Coward engagement at the long-gone Las Vegas venue Wilbur Clark’s Desert Inn, where some mid-20th-century artists got their groove back. Frank Sinatra, Moore tells us, resurrected his performance career at this very venue four years earlier, after a crushing divorce from Ava Gardner and some soul searching as the movie biz shifted and the studios were learning to share entertainment income with the young television industry. Sinatra, according to Moore, convinced the Desert Inn establishment to give Coward a run to both provide income and allow Coward to exercise his performance skills.

June 3, 1955, Moore notes, was the “most glamorous night in Las Vegas history” for which Coward earned over a million dollars for a four-week engagement.

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Judy Garland and David Niven attend Coward’s June 3, 1955 Desert Inn opening as part of Sinatra’s entourage.

Moore paints a picture of a time, a community, and show business camaraderie. Sinatra’s pals piled into charter planes for Coward’s Desert Inn opening, including original Rat Pack members Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland, Sid Luft and others. (Sinatra would execute a charter bus version of this kind of group adventure the following month for a July 1955 Garland concert in Long Beach. The Pack rolled together, and even joined each other on stage in these events.)

Moore in this show morphs in and out of Coward “in” one of these performances at the Desert Inn, alternately evoking tunes that were of that time and performed by Coward’s wide and deep circle of personal friends and professional acquaintances, as well as mixing in tunes that Coward could have included in his Las Vegas set list. We’re in the Desert Inn’s Painted Desert Room for the duration, our cabaret conceit runs, and Noel Coward’s spirit entertains us.

The “book” varies in quality, though the voice, the accompaniment, the passion, and the research are consistently rich and deep. A novelty tune “Mama Will Bark” serves to illustrates the goofy stuff that compelled Sinatra to end his recording contract with Mitch Miller and move to Capitol Records, yet is a rather shaky musical starting point for the enterprise. The sweet tune “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die” follows as homage to cabaret stalwart Julie Wilson, evoking the Coward community but delays giving us his own musical voice nor is it clear whether this tune is musically on point with the Coward Desert Inn repertoire.

After contextual stories and audience games (trivia questions for which correct answers and rewarded with tiaras from a stash that Moore draws from throughout the evening), we finally enter firm Coward ground. Stories about his (and Garland’s) great friend and terrific performer, arranger, and creative consultant Kay Thompson kick off the rest of the show, beginning with “Alice Is At It Again,” a double entendre masterpiece.

Moore notes that Coward “helped build the mold of cabaret” with this mid-1950s engagements in Las Vegas, London, and elsewhere. We learn that Las Vegas during those years was a “grab bag of novelty acts” including Mae West, Liberace, Tallulah Bankhead. Into this world, Coward brought his grace and style. Note to Mr. Moore: we may not need the first several tunes to get that feel through the music. Rather, take us into the world of his close pals. More to the point, take us quickly into the world of Coward’s own music and, staying true to the selected framing, perhaps even confine yourself more clearly to the set lists as performed by Coward during that lucrative four-week engagement.

A highlight of the evening is an homage to Coward’s great friend Judy Garland. Not enough people perform a tune that Garland performs in her film return in 1954 after being fired from M-G-M several years before. The magnificent 1954 remake of A Star is Born, released the year before Coward’s Desert Inn engagement provides, in the right hands a rarely performed power ballad. In Garland’s version of this familiar story, we meet band singer Esther Blodgett singing in a benefit along with several “boys” who all deliver a socko kill-the-people tune “Gotta Have Me Go With You.” Mulligan’s arrangement and Moore’s performance of this tune are driving and luscious and altogether marvelous. Did Coward perform this this number? Moore doesn’t clarify, but if he did not, this is a delicious tribute to a delicious number and a lovely tribute to his beloved friend. And this moment is the first tune in which the talents of the performer, his accompanist, and the materials powerfully connect.

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Judy Garland as Esther Blodgett, flanked by her fellow band singers, in the first minutes of A Star is Born (1954), performing  “Gotta Have Me Go With You.”

Friends of Moore fill my audience, and show their appreciation with earned, resounding applause and laughter. Two tunes are dedicated to Lionel Larner, executive director of the Dorothy Loudon Foundation, who graciously and charmingly corrects a few factoids Moore delivers in interstitial storytelling (e.g. when a meeting in someone’s apartment took place or what tunes were played where). Other’s sing along when prompted, and applaud when inspired.

The final two tunes, both staples of the Coward repertoire since the 1930s — purely and historically and famously Coward — send us out feeling the general themes of the evening, When Moore heads into “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” there are happy sighs of familiarity around the room, and a more than a few people sing along. Moore’s final “note” is the charming salute captured in the image that heads this essay. The single encore classic Coward tune rewards the real Coward fans, capturing his wit, charm, and a bit of his own child performer biography, “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington.”

Yes, the book of this show rambles a bit around the edges, neither purely a documentary about the Desert Inn run, or a purely Coward set list drawing from Coward’s own shows. What Moore and Mulligan do provide is a pastiche of source material, an homage to a time, and a warmly and delightfully executed musical evening.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 8, 2017)

Mulligan & Moore Vegas ’55 at The Metropolitan Room (34 West 22 Street) NYC (Wednesday May 31, 2017, with a return engagement scheduled for June 22, 2017).

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