Lisa Asher
Lisa Asher
Thanks to MAC Award winner Lisa Asher, songwriter Michael Peter Smith has become one of our new favorite composers. The talented and adventurous Asher is currently performing Stranded in the Moonlight, an entire evening of this Chicago-based composer's idiosyncratic and uniformly terrific work, for the next three Sundays at the Laurie Beechman Theatre at the West Bank Café. And what a revelation they both are in this sensational evening of song. We've always admired Asher for her lovely warm voice and interpretive skills, but she's found in Smith's work the sensibility in which to convey her own personality; for his part, Smith has the great good fortune to have Asher to help popularize his tunes here in New York.

That popularity is way overdue because his songs, despite occasional specific references to Chicago, seem very much the concoctions of a sophisticated (if nutty) New York wit. Smith's songs fall into a variety of categories, few of them conventional. He writes flat-out funny material that satirizes popular culture across the board from high to low brow. He makes sport of the museum crowd with "Dead Egyptian Blues" and then cuts up on the white trash folks with a song that goes by the title of "PDDBJ." He makes fun of his own hip circuit with a tongue-twisting tune called "Zippy," but he also has a resonant nostalgic eloquence with a song like "Sister Clarissa" about a beloved Catholic school teacher.

Beyond taking the brave step of putting on a show of all unknown songs by one relatively unknown composer, Asher's contribution to the material cannot be overestimated. She begins the evening with her show's title tune, "Stranded in the Moonlight," a deeply romantic song of yearning. There's a little bit of country in Asher's voice so you hear the "cry" when she sings its passionate high notes. Backed by her accomplished musical director at the piano, Jeff Waxman, Asher gives the song an insistent drive that matches the feverish need of the lyric. It's a seemingly conventional love song that surprises you with its pinpoint specific references that make it a far better and more eloquent torch number than you expect.

Her second song lets us see that Smith not only makes fun of himself, he's awfully smart about how he does it. In "Something About Big Twist," there are a series of verses in which everyone he meets or talks to -- including his girlfriend and his own mother -- are more interested in a cool mainstream singer named "Big Twist" than they are in him. She sings this number with a rueful sense of fun, never overselling and always with an honest sense of surprise, like she's telling you the story for the first time.

In a haunting song called "The Ballad of Elizabeth Dark," Asher unearths a poignant melancholy in her acting that she never showed before. She also supplies a sense of drama and mystery in the supernatural surprise, "Demon Lover." Displaying still more colors as an actress, Asher moves seamlessly from outlandish comedy ("Zippy") to something lyrical and beautiful as she commits to the sentiment of "Rose of Sharon" (from The Steppenwolf Broadway production of The Grapes of Wrath for which Smith wrote the music).

Some considerable credit for the smashing success of this show must also go to director Peter Glazer who created the act with Asher and Waxman. Not only is this the best, tightest, most entertaining show Asher has put on, her patter has never been better; it's informative, amusing and succinct. If we were looking for something to complain about, it would only be that the encore number, a lovely and moving piece about Smith's father, is misplaced. There are other songs in the program that would be better suited to cap off this remarkable evening.