Cabaret they say is a dying bred and for the most part it is like you have entered somebody’s therapy session, which is not my taste. It was with trepidation, that I ventured out to the Laurie Beechman Theatre to see Dawn Derow’s My Ship: Songs From 1941. Under the direction of Jeff Harner and musical director the late great Barry Levitt or “The Little Skipper, her Captain,”Dawn Derow’s show exceeds and changed my opinion of cabaret singers. This isn’t just a cabaret, but a fabulous one women show.
Starting with a terrific film montage of the era created by Michael Stever, the amazing Ian Herman Trio treated us to a exciting rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the A Train”.
Enter Dawn Derow, looking like Alice Faye with rolled hair, a dress from the era, complete with crinoline, seamed stockings, glittery heels, her grandmother’s lace, fingerless gloves and a purse passed down from generations. Taking on a sultry longing to Billie Holiday’s “Lover man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)” written by Jimmy Davis, Roger (“Ram”) Ramirez & James Sherman, Derow leaned subtly on the wall, letting us know, what we were in for. This is a show of passion both for the era, but it’s music.
Derow is comfortable on stage, as she immediately introduces us to her musicians. Based on nautical terms, on the starboard side is bass player Tom Hubbard. On the port side drummer Daniel Glass and at the helm leading the way on piano, Ian Herman.
1941 takes on a new meaning, with it’s treasure trove of material, as we are taken down a trip into the WWII era. Hey a two drink minimum was only $1.50 then!, and with that we bounce into a medley of “Let’s Get Away From It All” (Matt Denis/Tom Adair) and “How About You?” (Burton Lane/Ralph Freed).
This show is well paced with as many uptempo’s as there are ballads. Hoagy Carmichael/Johnny Mercer’s “Skylark” had a longing that broke your heart. What is most impressive, is these arrangements go in new and exciting places, that just make sense. What it does is makes these standard songs open up in a new and exciting way.
A 1941 show wouldn’t be complete without a Andrews Sisters melody. Here we get #1 and #4 from Billboard’s 1941 top 100 list. A swinging “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” (Don Raye/Hughie Prince) and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)” (Lew Brown/ Sam Stept/Charlie Tobias).
Another top billboard song from 1941 at #65, was the novelty song “Hut Sut Song (A Swedish Serenade)” (Leo V. Killion/Ted McMichael/ Jack Owens). With nonsensical lyrics, shockingly Derow got the audience to sing it with her. Now that’s impressive.
The title song of the show “My Ship” by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin, has never been a favorite song of mine, but with this arrangement Derow made the lyrics pop. Derow’s smooth vocals made this a lilting tantalizing yearning of a women waiting for her soldier to come home.
I have always loved the theme from Dumbo “When I See An Elephant Fly” with music & lyrics by Oliver Wallace and Ned Washington. Dumbo was released on October 23, 1941. In 1941 M&M’s were invented. During the war, the candies were exclusively sold to the military. Derow again engages the audience, as she opens her purse to gift the audience member who know these little known facts.
Mack Gordon/Harry Warren’s “Chatanooga Choo Choo” is one of the highlights of the night. In this show there are several. Derow turns this piece into a seduction with a fabulous lead in. Suddenly The Laurie Beechman got just a little hotter as Derow lures, cajoles, tempts, entices and beguiles. Back to innocents, Duke Ellington/Lee Gaines’ “Just Squeeze Me” becomes another form of wanting, and of desperate longing.
Another highlight was Duke Ellington/Paul Frances Webster’s “I Got It Bad (and that Ain’t Good)”. This song was emotionally riveting and again, went places musically, that just made it that more interesting.
And then there was Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer’s “Blues in The Night”, that just got bluer. Sometimes a show has just one highlight, but at this point there are four and I am in music heaven.
Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin are back with “The Saga of Jenny” from Lady in the Dark.
Then with a nostalgic touch Irving Berlin’s iconic “White Christmas” which was first performed by Bing Crosby on The Kraft Music Hall, Christmas day 1941, 18 days after Pearl Harbor, takes on a sentimental warmth. Again Derow gets the audience to join with her and I couldn’t help feeling the same pangs of loss for the people who lost their lives on the bike path.
Showing off her operatic chops Walter Kent/Nat Burton’s “The White Cliffs of Dover” soared. We were told the story of Elizabeth and Frederick Noble who met as the war began. They married, and 70 years later, died within days of each other in 2011. We hear a letter from the young soldier to his bride full of love and hope.
The show I saw was benefit for Barry Levitt who on September 19, as he finished a rehearsal with Dawn Derow for this show, was standing at the bar, when he collapsed and fell to the floor from a massive heart attack. With him were Dawn, Michael Stever, Richard Skipper, Tom Hubbard and Jeff Harnar. Dawn rushed to Barry’s side as manager Kenny Bell called 911. Dawn and friend Sheri Newman administered CPR (along with a waitress from the restaurant upstairs) waiting for the paramedics to arrive. Barry was taken by ambulance to Mt. Sinai West. He did not regain consciousness and passed away on September 21 at the age of 70.
Derow’s “At Last” (Mack Gordon/Harry Warren) was an emotional send off to Barry, thanking him and loving him and it was a powerful end to one amazingly crafted and performed show.
Barry Levitt, Jeff Harnar and Derow made an incredible team with the writing, direction and the new and exciting arrangements that made songs from the past seem present and new again. This is a show not to be missed and should have a long standing run in a room either in a hotel or cabaret house. Dawn Derow’s My Ship: Songs From 1941 is not just a cabaret, but a exquisite one women show that transcends time and place.
Dawn Derow’s My Ship: Songs From 1941: The Laurie Beechman Theatre, November 29th at 7pm and in February (stay tune for time and date.)