Zilah Mendoza in Living Out
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Zilah Mendoza in Living Out
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
There are two excellent reasons for seeing Living Out by Lisa Loomer at the Second Stage Theatre. The first is the stunning performance of Zilah Mendoza as an ambitious nanny who attempts to juggle the demands of two cultures, two families, and one fate. It's a wonder to watch the complicated and often subtle emotions that cascade across the face and through the body of this gifted actress. She has a great role and she plumbs it to its very depths.

Mendoza's character cares for a newborn baby in the Los Angeles household of a likeable if sometimes insensitive pair of married lawyers. She had to lie to get the job, claiming that her two children live in El Salvador when, in fact, one of them lives with her and her second husband elsewhere in L.A. She is also an illegal alien. But she is, at heart, a quintessential, modern American woman who wants to work, to have a family, and to achieve the better things in life. That leads us to the second reason to see Living Out: It's a story about real people (minus a couple of overdrawn supporting characters) with real problems, and it does not provide any easy answers. This is an issue play that also happens to be gripping drama.

********************

Actor Alert!

There was one excellent reason to see Good Morning, Bill by P.G. Wodehouse at the Connelly Theatre, and that was the deliciously comic supporting performance of Nick Toren. Playing a goofy aristocrat named Tidmouth, Toren didn't just steal every scene he was in, he absconded with the entire play.

Wodehouse intended the piece to be a romantic comedy about a well-meaning rich man's pursuit of an exceedingly modern female doctor. The rich man is bland, the female doctor is charmless -- but look out for the hero's friend, Tidmouth! In this otherwise unevenly acted revival by the Keen Company, Toren created a character at once silly, self-aware, devil-may-care, selfish, and stupid while always acting as if he were the cat's meow. In lesser hands, the role would have been a one-note joke; in Toren's hands, it was utterly delightful. And give the show's director, Carl Forsman, credit for nurturing this exceptionally talented actor's career: Forsman had previously cast Toren in two other plays in which he was also terrific, The Voice of the Turtle and Three-Cornered Moon.

********************

Silken Webb

Over the past few seasons, Jimmy Webb has performed quite regularly at Feinstein's at the Regency, pairing up with the likes of Glenn Campbell (an obvious choice) and Paul Williams (a much less obvious choice). Now he has teamed with the club's namesake, Michael Feinstein, for a show that's both fascinating and illuminating.

The idea of Webb, a contemporary songwriter with hits reaching back into the 1960s, working with Feinstein, whose reputation rests on his performances of standards from the 1920s through the 1950s, sounds odd. Feinstein himself remarks during the show that someone commented, "Isn't it strange that you're working with Jimmy Webb?" To which Feinstein replied, "Why, because he's alive?" As it turns out, the match makes sense. Feinstein is all about The Great American Songbook and Jimmy Webb is part of a more recent generation of songwriters who are adding to its glory.

Named after a new CD, the show that's now playing at Feinstein's at the Regency is called Only One Life: The Songs of Jimmy Webb, but it includes a few songs that weren't written by Webb. Fans of the old standards will be glad to hear Feinstein sing "Of Thee I Sing" by the Gershwins, and he generously adds Irving Berlin's "I Love a Piano" to a lovely tune called "Piano" that Webb wrote when he was just 16 years old. Speaking of the 88s, Feinstein and Webb perform on twin pianos; this affords them the opportunity to playfully launch into an instrumental duet that ranges from "Beethoven's Fifth" to "Heart and Soul." The rest of the songs they perform are all Webb creations.

"Only One Life" was originally written for a musical that Michael Bennett was going to direct. Webb played it for Bennett on the day that the great director/choreographer discovered he had AIDS. The song resonates as Feinstein uses his deeper vocal register to touch on bottomless emotions. Feinstein sounds great these days, and he's delving into darker musical waters with songs like "The Moon's a Harsh Mistress" and "After all the Loves of My Life." When he sings "Didn't We," he builds to a passionate explosion at the song's climax, belting and holding the word "long" in the phrase "that long hard climb." The effect is devastating.

Webb sings some of his most famous songs, including "Wichita Lineman" and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," which Frank Sinatra once called "the greatest saloon song ever written." But if the music belongs to Webb, the show finally belongs to Feinstein, who proves to be a Webbmaster.

********************

Croon a Tune

In a world where irony and attitude now rule, it's indeed refreshing to come upon a show about the past that treats its subject matter lovingly and straight on. The show was called Croon and it offered a charming look back at the era when such singers as Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo were popular. Starring Gregory Moore on vocals and Lana Rein at the piano, this sweetly innocent entertainment at the FireBird sprinkled humorous anecdotes and fascinating factoids between performances of songs both famous and forgotten.

Moore is a classically trained baritone with a built-in period sound. He seemed a bit stiff on stage but his voice immediately conjured up the past. Mind you, he didn't do impressions of Bing Crosby or anyone else, but he did evoke the era very effectively. He was helped in no small measure by his musical director, Rein, whose lush and loving arrangements benefitted every song in the program. We enjoyed such chestnuts as the sensual "Temptation," the colorfully romantic "You Call it Madness (But I Call it Love)," and the classic "Prisoner of Love."

********************

Martha Lorin
Martha Lorin
Martha Lorin Gets Down

You'd be hard-pressed to find a jazz singer in any New York City venue with a more seductively beautiful voice than Martha Lorin's. Deep and dusky but vibrant -- almost throbbing -- Lorin's voice is as musical as it is passionate. Her current show at Mama Rose is titled Jazz To Broadway and Back. Among the Broadway songs that get the jazz treatment here is Lerner and Loewe's "On the Street Where You Live" (from My Fair Lady). Lorin plays a little fast and loose with the lyrics, but oh, the towering talent! This is a tour de force of style, arranged by Lorin's musical director, Russ Kassoff. The show also features the ever-popular bass player Jay Leonhart.

Lorin's patter might be described as extremely nonchalant; you can be sure that it's not written or prepared. There's nothing nonchalant, however, about her classic jazz performance of "Lazy River" (Hoagy Carmichael/Sidney Arodin) or her elegantly beautiful rendering of "Misty" (Johnny Burke/Errol Garner). One of the other highlights of the show is her delivery of her own evocative song "Coney Island," co-written with Frank Collett. Lorin has two more Tuesday night performances at Mama Rose on October 21 and 28, both at 7pm.