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Monday, January 20, 2014

The Wrath of Mel

From the Vault Dept.: He agreed to return to Proctor’s Theatre for another performance, but he insisted that I be banned from the theater. Which, the Proctor’s management assured me, would not be the case – but Mel Tormé had been difficult to deal with from the get-go. I believe he did perform there again, but given the experience I recount below, I was hardly interested in seeing him perform again.


GEORGE GERSHWIN'S FILM BIO, “Rhapsody in Blue,” finishes with a performance of the title tune during which, as pianist Oscar Levant works his way to the finish, the point of view shifts to an overhead shot as the camera works its way up ... up ... past a few wisps of clouds ... on heavenward ... to suggest a composer's-eye view of the proceedings.

Mel Tormé
It was worthy attempt to pay tribute to the composer who by then had been dead for eight years. But it suffered from extreme sappiness.

This same phenomenon plagued Mel Tormé’s “Great Gershwin Concert,” performed at Proctor’s Theatre Friday evening with the able assistance of Leslie Uggams and Peter Nero. And we didn’t even get a complete version of the “Rhapsody.”

Tormé is a phenomenal talent who writes words and music, arranges, acts, and sings, of course. He had a good idea in adding continuity to this concert, and it’s nice to have the energy a variety of material can offer. But his is a kid-in-a-candy-shop attitude: if one song is good, a dozen must be better. Instead of hearing one work done well, you wind up with plenty o’ nothin’.

Too often it seemed that Tormé was merely using the memory and material of Gershwin to remind us how nifty he himself is: sure, it’s appropriate to salute Fred Astaire’s relationship with George and Ira, but a Tormé-rewritten lyric to “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” was full of treacle and lousy rhymes.

There also was a “Best of Gershwin” sensibility about the show, in the sense that material was eviscerated and strung into suites, rather like the way that familiar classical themes were affixed with a disco beat not too long ago and thus rendered more “popular.”

Peter Nero, who knows his music well enough to pepper a Gershwin solo with witty quotes from Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, and Mozart among many others, stooped to presenting a mish-mash of “An American in Paris,” the Concerto in F and two of the Three Preludes with lots of horn fill. If Gershwin wrote so many parts so boring that they needed to be cut, why pay tribute at all?

The fourteen piece band was okay in the drab backup arrangements, but fell to pieces in the abridged “Rhapsody in Blue.” The Paul Whiteman band, which premiered the work in 1924, wasn’t much bigger – but they rehearsed. That’s another form of tribute.

Leslie Uggams was a standout, when she didn’t have to participate in the silly, self-conscious dialogues that permeated the show. She can sing anything from the flapperette “Do Do Do” to “Someone to Watch Over Me” to the more operatic “I Loves You, Porgy” and make it sound good and tastefully styled.

So can Tormé, when you get right down to it, but he needs to be restrained from imposing an artificial Vegas glitziness upon his presentation. It’s pandering to the cheapest laughs, and the show ends up like something Jerry Lewis drags out in the eleventh hour of a telethon.

The concert scene has been hopping this year to mark the half-century since Gershwin’s passing, but there certainly is room for another good show. But it has to be done with integrity or the purpose of the thing is lost.

At the end of this one, the three principals trashed “The Man I Love.” They seemed delighted to be doing so, and it left us with an unfortunate metaphor for the concert as a whole.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 2 November 1987

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