Lisa Asher: Stranded in the Moonlight
This MAC Award winner's superb new cabaret show devoted to the work of Michael Peter Smith is the ideal pairing of singer and songwriter.
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).