by Nancy Stetson, 2/03/2016
Read the Review on Florida Weekly.com
The writing on the theater wall says it all: “Buddy, I’m a kind of poet and I’ve got a lot of things to say.”
It’s a line from Johnny Mercer’s song “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road).” And it’s a perfect description of the man who wrote more than 1,500 songs and sold more than 12 million records, at one point rivaling Bing Crosby as America’s Greatest Singer.
Odds are, if you’re familiar at all with the Great American Songbook, you’ve heard a Johnny Mercer tune or two, or three … or likely more.
He wrote songs for 100 movies and 23 musicals. He won an Oscar for Best Song four times and was nominated 18 times.
“Moon River”? Those are his lyrics. Also “Days of Wine and Roses,” “Charade,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Skylark,” “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening.”
He also wrote the lyrics to “Blues in the Night” (known by some by its opening line, “My Mama done told me.”)
These are just a handful of the songs you’ll hear at “Too Marvelous For Words: A Salute to Johnny Mercer,” playing at Florida Repertory Theatre’s ArtStudio Stage. It sold out for a few weeks and has been extended a week so it now runs through March 13. (It’s possible the run will be extended yet again — and ticket prices might rise.)
Conceived, written and directed by Robert Cacioppo,Florida Rep’s producing artistic director, the show is a true labor of love. It contains 40-plus songs, all by Mr. Mercer and performed by six singers who seem to love the music just as much Mr. Cacioppo does.
Throughout the revue, you get some history about the lyricist/songwriter/ singer, but Mr. Cacioppo took care not to overload the show with narrative. We learn that Mr. Mercer co-founded and was president of Capitol Records, which recorded artists such as Peggy Lee, Margaret Whiting, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra. We’re also told he had an on-again off-again love affair with Judy Garland for three decades, despite being 13 years her senior and married. She inspired some of his greatest love songs.
Dave Edwards, who narrates as well as sings, sketches out the life of Mr. Mercer with a minimum of lines.
The emphasis is on the music.
And what sweet music it is!
It’s enough to make you swoon.
Mr. Mercer collaborated with a number of composers, among them Jerome Kern, Henry Mancini,Harold Arlen, and Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.
In the beginning of Act I, when Julie Kavanagh sings “I’m Old Fashioned” (“I’m old fashioned/I love the moonlight”), you agree with her. She delivers the song with simplicity and a purity of emotion. As she sings, your heart agrees: Yes, you too love the moonlight and “sighing sighs and holding hands” and everything that makes up the lyrics of a good, old-fashioned love song.
So many revues are schlocky, corny affairs. “Too Marvelous” avoids clichés and presents the music in its best light.
Joe Bigelow, Soara-Joye Ross and Mr. Edwards join Ms. Kavanagh as the basic four singers. Michael McAssey, who plays grand piano and wrote the arrangements, and James David Larson, who plays upright bass, back them, but also join them in singing, even coming out from behind their instruments on occasion.
Mr. McAssey pairs up with Mr. Edwards on a silly, vaudeville-esque “Top Banana,” and Mr. Larsondelivers a solo as an Elvis wannabe on “GI Jive,” accompanying himself on stand-up bass.
Each performer has his or her moment in the spotlight.
Mr. Edwards electrifies with “Accentuate the Positive,” a song inspired by a Father Divine sermon, singing with a gospel fervor and evangelical zeal. (Kudos to choreographer Arthur D’Alessio, whose moves add enormously to the pleasure of the songs.)
Mr. Edwards grabs the song with both hands and doesn’t let go. “Don’t mess with Mr. Inbetween,” he exhorts, as if warning Christians from the sin of being lukewarm.
Ms. Ross brings down the house with her sultry solo of “Anyplace I Hang My Hat is Home.” She has a big, rich voice, and knows how to use it. (She also gets to solo on “Skylark,” with her voice full of longing, and both “I Wonder What Became of Me” and “Day In-Day Out” have a hint of sorrow and regretfulness that shadows her words.
In “Beautiful Baby” (“You must have been a beautiful baby”), Ms. Kavanagh perches on top of the grand piano as if she were born to be there.
Mr. Bigelow and Ms. Kavanagh make a splendid couple as they share duets on “Pardon My Southern Accent” and “Something’s Gotta Give,” in which they also rule the dance floor.
The revue opens with a series of train songs, or songs in which trains are mentioned. The lighting, which I think was meant to be moody, needs some tweaking, as the singers were often left in the shadows.
As the show gathers speed, the six solo and sing together in various combinations. And soon, as spectacular as each song is, the next one seems to top it.
Some are so wonderful, I wanted to clap my hands and like a toddler insist, “Again! Sing it again!”
For example, there’s “Moon River,” with the entire company singing and harmonizing. It starts out a cappella before Mr. Larson joins in, lightly strumming on guitar. It is sheer perfection, breathtaking.
And “Jeepers Creepers” presents all four men singing together and accompanying themselves on ukuleles.
These performances are so incredible, I wish they were on iTunes, so I could listen to them over and over.
The audience was highly familiar with many of the tunes, especially the ones in Act II, so much so that they couldn’t help themselves and began singing along on the chorus of “Goody Goody.” (Mr. Mercer wrote two of the best revengeafter being-dumped songs: “I Wanna Be Around” and “Goody Goody.”)
Mr. Mercer’s skillful lyrics make use of slang and the vernacular of his time — “buddy,” “flippin’” and “amigo” — but they never sound forced. Just look at the title “Jeepers Creepers” and the lyrics that then refer to eyes as “peepers.”
He must have had fun writing “Strip Polka,” which seems to be a play on the phrase “strip poker.” (Yes, the song is a polka about a stripper.)
His lyrics are conversational, yet eloquent.
And achingly romantic.
In “Moon River,” he sings about “my huckleberry friend,” and in “Days of Wine and Roses” about “a closing door/a door marked ‘nevermore’/That wasn’t there before,” that door that appears in our consciousness at some point in adulthood as we become aware of our own mortality.
The set by Tim Billman is simple and elegant, with a blue curtain across the back and a grand piano center stage. Phrases from various Johnny Mercer songs are painted on the remaining three walls. Dina Perez designed the costumes, which consist of glamorous gowns and tuxes in Act II.
“Too Marvelous For Words” is well worth seeing, a love letter to a man who wrote the most expressive love songs. I wouldn’t be surprised if some go back a second time to experience these exquisite songs all over again.