Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Michele Lee: Nobody Does It Like Me, The Music of Cy Coleman
Michele Lee made her Broadway debut in 1960, at the age of seventeen, and has been consistently working ever since. On Friday, October 14, she found herself on the stage of Bucks County Playhouse, in New Hope, Pennsylvania, to inaugurate that theater's new RRazz Room Cabaret Series. Her program, Nobody Does It Like Me, The Music of Cy Coleman, is aptly named. More than fifty years into her sterling career, there are few performers who can sell a song as well.
The cabaret takes its title from Lee's signature song, which she originated in Coleman's 1973 musical Seesaw. Lee didn't keep the audience waiting, choosing to perform the number near the top of her ninety-minute act. Ably supported by a jazz trio under the musical direction of Ron Abel, Lee found all the nuance and humor in Dorothy Fields' lyrics"And though I try to be a lady / I'm no lady, I'm a fraud / And when I talk like I'm a lady / What I sound like is a broad"while musically doing justice to Coleman's jazzy style with her sultry alto. The audience roared its applause, with one patron repeatedly shouting "brava!"
Seesaw made up a large part of the evening, but some of the more unexpected pleasures came when Lee essayed songs from other Coleman shows. She told us that Coleman felt great compassion toward downtrodden people, particularly women, which led him to write works like Sweet Charity and The Life. Lee's rendition of "Big Spender" (lyrics by Fields) from the former musical, conveyed the pleasure that comes from hearing a well-worn song as if for the first time. From The Life, she offered a pinpoint-sharp interpretation of "The Oldest Profession" (lyrics by Ira Gasman), jokingly swapping out one type of performing (prostitution) for another (the stage).
Given the skilled jazz trio assembled to back her, it seems a shame that Lee chose not to highlight any of the music from City of Angels, the show most influenced by Coleman's lifelong love of the genre. It also would have been fun to hear her take a crack at "Repent," Mrs. Primrose's zany lament from On the Twentieth Century. But I'll settle for her achingly beautiful take on "The Colors of My Life" (lyrics by Michael Stewart) from Barnum, and her acid-tongued "Never Met a Man I Didn't Like" (lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green) from The Will Rogers Follies, which she dedicated to this year's presidential election. The concert closed with the finale soliloquy from Seesaw, with Lee summoning the passion she must have brought to her role night after night forty years ago.
Coleman is quoted saying that Lee "embraces a lyric like nobody can." How right he was, and how lucky we are.
Nobody Does It Like Me, The Music of Cy Coleman was presented October 14, 2016, at Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, PA. For more information about upcoming shows at that theatre, visit bcptheater.org. Michele Lee will present the same show on October 15, 2016, at The Prince Theater in Philadelphia (1412 Chestnut Street). Tickets can be purchased at www.princetheater.org.