It took me a while, but I finally got to see this one-woman cabaret tribute to the music and inspiration of legendary songstress Laura Nyro. Starring singer/pianist Kate Ferber, who co-wrote it with Louis Greenstein, it premiered in 2009, but at least one detail's changed since then: mention of Nyro's 2012 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been incorporated into one of the character monologs.
Anyone who nowadays programs Nyro's songs -- a handful of famous hits (those heard this evening included "Save the Country," "Wedding Bell Blues," "And When I Die," and "Eli's Comin'"), and oodles of album tracks beloved by her devoted fans -- has to deal with the shadow of her highly distinctive performances, drenched in vocal virtuosity that includes unique phrasing and a spectacular range. Ferber pulls this difficult task off with aplomb. She seems to have absorbed Nyro's style so thoroughly that she can exude it not as imitation so much as reincarnation; rather than copy each song's memorable original, she rearranges them, but so in the spirit of Nyro's freewheeling creativity, and with so much of her phrasing and vocal sound, that they still sound utterly authentic -- until near the end, when she throws in some of her own style after telling us that one of the lessons she learned from Nyro's music was to be herself. A star is born, it would seem after witnessing this wonderful performance.
She has to call upon acting skills just as much as musical talent, because the show is structured with monologues between the songs. It starts out with a performer-to-audience heart-to-heart, this young singer explaining that she heard Nyro's music thanks to her parents' record collection and, then, her piano teacher's gift of a Nyro songbook containing the sheet music to the first four classic albums for Columbia. After that we get a Noo Yawker's reminiscences of meeting Nyro by chance and getting to spend an afternoon hanging out with her; a businessman/Nyro geek's recounting of his experience at one of her concerts; a Russian émigré who learns English from listening to Nyro albums and also learns, at the farmer's market, that one cannot buy "tendaberries"; a fellow synesthete identifying with Nyro; and several more, covering a spectrum ranging from pathos to hilarity. Each one is a perfectly written, colorful little gem delivered with a perfect sense of timing. As we hear about the often stunning effect the songwriter had on her public, we learn about Nyro along the way, far from accidentally but with complete naturalness rather than bald exposition. Finally, there is Ferber's return to autobiography with the aforementioned declaration of stylistic freedom. For an encore we are given Nyro's frequent encore choice, "Emily."
Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt's minimal production, with very slight costume changes -- one item per character -- keeps the show flowing smoothly around a set that consists solely of a stage with a piano, yet manages to encompass the world, and a life -- in fact, many lives. It's quite the tour de force on every level. - Steve Holtje
Photo credit: Alex Lowe
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. His song cycle setting five of James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach can be heard here.