Dallas — Male song stylists like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett may garner the headlines, but much of the American Songbook has been charted by treble voices. Ella Fitzgerald’s crystal vocals are considered the definitive versions of seminal composers like Gershwin and Rodgers and Hart. The imperious power and astonishing range of Sarah Vaughn trumpet the virtuosity of the great standards. The brittle openness of Billie Holliday exposes the American Songbook’s soul. Jo Stafford’s sultry crooning reveals its cool boudoir intimacy. And the savage friskiness of Anita O’Day and Keely Smith thrills to the core.
In that vein, the Friday, Sept. 29 presentation of Dallas Divas!, a collaboration by the Dallas Winds and Lyric Stage at the Meyerson Symphony Center, promises all the right ingredients for a concert of Songbook elegance. Take seven of the top female musical theater singers in North Texas, add 19 acclaimed instruments to serve as their Big Band, stir in unique arrangements created especially for each performer and serve red hot.
Both Kim Campbell, Founder and Executive Director of the Dallas Winds and Steven Jones, Founding Producer of the Lyric Stage, are boiling over with excitement about the project.
Lyric Stage has a history of Diva productions, going back almost 20 years although the last Dallas Divas presentation was around 10 years ago.
“It sprung from how many great women singers and performers have always been in this area,” explains Jones. “The first version had 18 singers doing all their favorite pieces. It was kind of a free-for-all. Over the next few years we began to work with a theme. We featured the canons of the musical theater. At first we performed with two pianos. Then we worked up to what was essentially our full show orchestra.”
What changes this year is the long sought-after presence of the Dallas Winds. “We have TACA to thank for this,” says Campbell, echoed by his Lyric Stage counterpart. “[The arts grant foundation] is celebrating their 50th year and they have been encouraging collaboration among groups that they support. Steven and I had been talking about our groups working together for years. This seemed like an ideal time.”
Part of the timeliness has to do with the exceptionally strong group of divas featured in this version. They include Sally Soldo, Amy Stevenson and Catherine Carpenter Cox, who have performed in past Dallas Divas. These diva veterans are joined by Daron Cockerell, Kelly Silverthorn, Julie Johnson and Kristen Lassiter. Together the group has appeared in dozens of Lyric Stage performances, and a vast range of Broadway and off-Broadway shows, as well as other regional theaters and concert productions. Both Campbell and Jones talk about the “joy of having so many different styles of singer.” Their styles range from Broadway belter to a lyric opera sound (what Jones terms “legit voices”), and includes cabaret and even a bit of country twang.
The transition from Broadway to Big Band makes for an intriguing process. The Lyric Stage performances have never featured the kind of free-wheeling jazzy atmosphere that this concert conjures. “From the beginning,” says Jones, “we had the problem that the right versions of the songs simply didn’t exist. Our productions of the Dallas Divas in the past had featured the original show arrangements of most of the songs. But some of the music we chose did not have those available. Or they were the wrong instrumentation. The answer was to make arrangements for each of the songs, although the Lyric Stage has never done that before.”
“The Dallas Winds routinely put on big band-type of shows,” Campbell adds. “So we wanted to use that style as our format. Our arranger Dean Bouras worked with each woman to come up with a unique chart to fit her style.”
The effort resulted in 18 never-before-performed versions of classic songs from the American Songbook, ranging from the Gershwins to Henry Mancini, but even where some of the songs may have had Broadway roots, they are spiffed up in a Big Band style.
“We typically specialize Rodgers and Hammerstein,” says Jones. “For this concert it’s more Rodgers and Hart.”
Bringing the whole process together is Jeff Helmer, director of Jazz Studies at UT Austin. He helped each diva find the songs that suited her individual style, worked on the voice of the arrangements and helped form the coherent program that will be presented. In addition to playing and conducting from the piano bench, he will serve as a narrator of sorts, adding stories and anecdotes about the songs and composers.
The songs on the program are all familiar but the juxtaposition of upbeat rhythms with soulful ballads should keep the audience delightfully off balance. It would be too much of a spoiler to list all the twists and veers, but I am particularly struck by the opening set, bouncing from the joyous “S’wonderful” to the chaste and winsome “Someone to Watch Over Me,” both towering Gershwin classics, only to be pulled firmly down by the earthy Rodgers and Hart song “The Lady Is a Tramp.” The program is full of these delicious mismatches of style and tone, as any jazz performance should be.
At the heart of all is the soaring variety and agility of the treble voice. Female singers can match the inherent versatility of the wind ensemble in dynamic control and dramatic and vocal range. It is why so many of the great standards are definitively defined by woman singers. And to anticipate a concert of magnificent divas performing arrangements custom made for them like glittering ball gowns is a thrill that no aficionado of the American Songbook will be able to resist.