Mancini at the Movies is meant to be a celebration of the music of Henry Mancini by his daughter, but it hasn't turned out that way. Instead, Monica Mancini unintentionally presents the great songs of one of Hollywood's most successful composers as if they were museum pieces. Her respectful, straight-on renditions of "Two for the Road," "Moon River," and other beloved ballads in her act at Feinstein's at the Regency sound pretty enough but are ultimately bland and uninspired.
When we last encountered Ms. Mancini, she was performing at the Oak Room. Surely, we had thought, this woman who grew up with her father's music would have something to say either in her patter or in her singing that would give us some fresh insights into these songs. There were none to be had. In her new show, she is clearly trying to rectify that failing, but she goes about it rather awkwardly. For the most part, the insider anecdotes come from the mouths of people other than herself, as in an interview with the late Jack Lemmon that is screened on video monitors situated at either side of the stage. In the clip, Lemmon recalls being summoned to a sound stage during the filming of Days of Wine and Roses; there, under a spotlight, he heard Henry Mancini play and Johnny Mercer sing their newly written title song for the movie. Lemmon notes that Mercer didn't have a great voice but could interpret a lyric like nobody else--and then Monica sings "Days of Wine and Roses." Well, she's no Johnny Mercer. Ironically, the clip does her in by pointing up what is lacking in her own performance. (She compounds the mistake by upstaging her rendition of "Moon River" with clips of Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard in Breakfast at Tiffany's.)
Though the show is called Mancini at the Movies, not all of the music included is by Monica's father; approximately one-third of her selections are the work of others. She displays somewhat more freedom here, delivering such songs as "Too Late Now" (Burton Lane/Alan Jay Lerner) and "It Goes Like it Goes" (David Shire/Norman Gimble) with more élan than she brings to the Mancini material. A major exception is her opening number, which doesn't work at all: Mancini begins by singing "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive" (Arlen/Mercer) à cappella, harmonizing with tracks of herself on tape as she leads the band, Pied Piper-like, to the stage. This may well be the most ill conceived opening of a cabaret act that we've ever witnessed. We have no idea who's singing with Mancini; it seems like it should be the band, but it isn't. And why are we hearing anything on tape when this is a live performance? We spend more time trying to figure out what's going on than listening to the song.
The show on the whole gives one the impression that Monica Mancini has a lovely voice with a delicious timbre but that she lacks interpretive skills; aside from everything else, her face rarely changes expression. However, she is helped immeasurably by the exciting arrangements of her husband/music director/drummer (not necessarily in that order), Gregg Field. And the musicianship of the four-piece band behind her could not be improved upon; in particular, pianist Russ Kassoff truly makes the keyboard sing. We suspect that Mancini is far more successful on CD--she has two, neither of which we have sampled--because the lack of acting chops that she displays in a cabaret room must be less of an issue when she is heard but not seen.