Dallas — Ever wish you’d been born in time to catch the “supper club” music scene of the early 20th century? Jazz band in full swing, chanteuse warbling at the microphone, couples sipping Manhattans at small tables, deciding whether to dance or “sit this one out”: quel fun! Well, now’s your chance, as Echo Theatre reimagines it all for The Echo Room Presents "Her Song” at the Bath House Cultural Center. You can come as you are, of course—but if (at the back of your closet) there’s a vintage hat or a pair of tails you’d like to take out for an evening, feel free. This could be the best date night ever: a kind of Rocky Horror for your inner sophisticate.
And here’s the hook: Echo isn’t just presenting vintage music: it’s showcasing “jewels from the Great American Female Songbook”—songs by women. We may think the old days were all about Gershwin and Porter, Berlin and Kern. But if those gentlemen could talk, even they would agree that among the “best in the biz” were plenty of talented and hard-working women composers and lyricists, who penned a hit parade of popular songs in the first half of the century. Today, we still know dozens of their songs—but not the names of the women who created them.
“Her Song” is a delightful bit of mission creep for Echo, which since 1997 has focused on producing the work of women playwrights. But why not edge sideways a little, one literary genre to the left—and take up the “little plays” that popular songs really are? Singer-songwriter Annie Benjamin (who also performs in the show) brought the idea to Echo, but developing and shaping the revue seems to have been a labor of love for the company as a whole.
What’s more, Echo has clearly used a time machine (please tell me where you found it!) to transport the Matt Tolentino Quartet direct from 1930s New York, for a vibrant, authentic sound that sends this show soaring. The “Echo Room Crooners” are a critical mass of fine local singers/actors (Malcolm Beaty, Annie Benjamin, Kristin Bond, Kateri Cale, Lorena Davey, Terri Ferguson, Jonathan Garcia, Maranda Harrison) who perform in character under the names of well-known performers of that day. And waltzes, tangos, Charlestons, rhumbas and more are given a “here’s how it’s done” turn by four versatile members of the Danielle Georgiou Dance Group (Gabriel King, Veena Naik, Jen Obeney, Stephen Raikes).
Do classic songs written by women have a different voice? It goes without saying that women have as wide an emotional and artistic range as their male counterparts—but yes, there does seem to be a certain sharpness of vision, an ability to look love in the face with all its joys/passions/betrayals that we don’t hear so much from the guys. Men are more likely to serenade the girl of their dreams (“Heaven, I’m in heaven…”), while “the ladies” take a good look at the here and now. Here are their voices and tunes—sassy and sad, ironic and open-hearted:
A fine romance
With no quarrels
With no insults
And all morals
I’ve never mussed the crease
In your blue serge pants
I never got the chance
This is a fine romance
— “A Fine Romance” (1936), Dorothy Fields lyric, Jerome Kern music
My daddy was a rag-time trombone player,
My mommy was a rag-time cabaret-er.
They met one day at a tango tea,
There was a syncopated wedding,
And then came me!
Folks think the way I walk is a fad,
But it's a birthday present from my mommy and dad-dy.
I'm a jazz baby, little jazz baby, that's me.
There's something in the tone of a saxophone
That makes me do a little wiggle all my own!
— “Jazz Baby” (1919), Blanche Merrill lyric, M.K. Jerome music
Ain't got nobody to grind my coffee in the morning,
Ain't got nobody to serve my breakfast in bed,
My daddy went away
A week ago today,
How'm I gonna find a-
Nother coffee grinder
Who could do my grinding like my sweet man could?
— “Ain’t Got Nobody To Grind My Coffee” (1928), Blues singer Clara Smith
I thought I’d found a man I could trust
What a bust!
This is how the story ends
He’s gonna break my heart and say
Can’t we be friends?
— “Can’t We Be Friends?” (1929), Kay Swift music, Paul James lyric (husband-wife team)
When I’m awfully low
When the world is cold
I will get a glow just thinking of you
And the way you look tonight.
— “The Way You Look Tonight” (1936), Dorothy Fields lyric, Jerome Kern music
Not every one of the more than two dozen songs is a classic, but all offer much to enjoy. And while the singing occasionally doesn’t rise to the level of the great quartet onstage, mostly it’s “Fine and Dandy”—to quote one of the song titles. Best-of-show numbers include a blazing version of Alberta Hunter’s classic “Down Hearted Blues” from singer Bond; Ferguson’s “Can’t We Be Friends?” sung with Garcia and Beaty from (where else?) her sad perch on the Echo Room’s bar; Davey’s smoldering “Blame It On Mame”—not to mention her gorgeous “Jurame” (a classic South of the Border hit of the 1920s from Maria Grever, known in English as “What a Difference a Day Makes”); Benjamin’s hip-swiveling zest and growling voice on the “Grind My Coffee” song; and the tuneful, comic pairing of the sweet-voiced Beaty, first with Harrison on “Hello! Ma Baby!”, and later with Bond for “I Won’t Dance.”
Band leader Tolentino, who does great things with a clarinet or an accordion, has a pretty fine tenor as well, and delivers a lyric with the crystal-clear diction classic songwriters wanted to hear. (If you can’t understand the words, they thought, what’s the point?) And music director Scott A. Eckert, whose arrangements for the songs are stellar, shines in a delicate piano accompaniment to “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and on guitar in “Jurame.”
Cheers to director Shelby-Allison Hibbs, who is credited with shaping the structure of the revue. The show has so much happening at any given moment—singer and band at center, dancers on the floor, other performers morphing into “songbird trios” out in the audience—that it must have taken a deep breath, and a lot of good planning, to make all the moving parts mesh into a whole. And last, but most definitely not least, a “wow” to costume designer Ryan Matthieu Smith, who inhaled 50 years of American showbiz fashion and exhaled a gorgeous parade of costumes that are “period” without being stuffy. Beaty and Garcia are locked into their elegant black and white tailcoats for the evening, but many of the female performers get three or more costume changes that let them have fun with a half-century of styles: from the sweet gowns of the “teens” to the clean “Flapper” look of the ‘20s, the sleek satins of the ‘30s, and the flowered hats and big shoulders of the ‘40s.
Echo never pushes the history lesson too hard; yet it’s fun to note that the lively closing number of the show, “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue”—a hit for Louis Armstrong in 1925—actually was written by his jazz pianist wife, Lil Hardin Armstrong. This is a light, festive introduction to the women who wrote the songs—and a ton of fun for lovers of American popular music.
More information about songwriters such as Dana Suesse, Kay Swift, Alberta Hunter, Maria Grever, Clara Smith, Dorothy Fields and others can be found online. On YouTube, you can find their songs both in original form and as “covered” by many artists. Explore!
Below is “A Fine Romance” from Swing Time (1936), with Ginger Rogers giving Fred Astaire a hard time for being the coldest lover ever. Fred is in love with her, but has complicated, comical reasons for holding back. In the end, of course, things will all work out. With Jerome Kern’s music and Dorothy Fields’ playful, woeful lyric:
» In the interest of disclosure, director Hibbs contributes artist interviews to TheaterJones, such as her interview with playwright Len Jenkin.