Amy Beth Williams
A Thousand Beautiful Things
Don’t Tell Mama, NYC, December 18, 2017
Reviewed by Alix Cohen for Cabaret Scenes
Amy Beth Williams has a voice with wings. There’s something about its tenor and texture that buoys material. Successive octave changes seem effortless. The artist is aware of what she’s singing—emotional choices have been made, situations recognized. Phrasing is thoughtful; it makes sense. As directed by Tanya Moberly, she looks at her audience, telling stories; gestures are lyrical extensions. Williams is an extremely talented, appealing presence.
The title song by Annie Lennox rises like a geyser, exhilarating, exalting: “Every day I write the list /Of reasons why I still believe they do exist / A thousand beautiful things….” One feels surrounded by swirls of palpable emotion. If I hold my breath, will it remain? Ian Herman’s gorgeous arrangement is one of many rich, layered interpretations in which we happily find ourselves immersed.
The first offering is one of few upbeat songs on tonight’s roster. An unusually spirited treatment of Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” is accompanied by piano that almost giggles with pleasure. “Times Are Hard for Dreamers” (Nathan Tyson/Daniel R. Messe from Amelie) is a no-hands bicycle ride on the open road of hope—music soars. The nonsense “One Hippopotami” (Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley/Alan Sherman) arrives seriously funny for Williams’ deadpan, legitimate delivery.
Many selections come from musicals, i.e., they’re situational and don’t land as blues. While Williams beautifully inhabits her characters’ honesty, these songs need setting up. We have no context in which to understand circumstances. Sequencing with an arc would rectify this, but direction/change are also not apparent, or I missed them.
“Around the World” (Scott Frankel/Michael Korie from Grey Gardens): “It’s my mother’s house./In my mother’s name/And you can’t beat mother at mother’s game…” aptly emerges as rigid anger at the center of a cyclone. “Between Yesterday and Tomorrow” (Michel Legrand/Alan & Marilyn Bergman) is gothic. Williams’ pained voice is kneaded by a lush arrangement. Stark cliffs and riled sea are evoked. This show conjures.
A credibly bitter, defeated woman sings “Teaching Third Grade” (Marvin Laird/Joe Paley from Ruthless). Despondency momentarily clears during Rufus Wainwright’s sweetly romantic “The Art Teacher,” but we’re drawn back into it with Henry Mancini/Leslie Bricusse’s “Two for the Road.” This last is one of only two songs in the show I feel could be improved. I found the number too big for its delicate, wistful sentiment. The second is a rendition of “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” (Kurt Weill/Ogden Nash from One Touch of Venus) whose pith is diminished because of speed.
Yet another enraged woman, here cowed by history, emphatically exclaims “So What?” (John Kander/Fred Ebb from Cabaret). Williams spits the lyrics, punctuating with what appear to be impelled gestures. Both dramatic and vocal range are impressive. “I’ll Be Seeing You” (Sammy Fain/Irving Kahal) is poignant, wounded, like swallowing a cloud. It viscerally hurts. Noël Coward’s “World Weary” is like shrugging in the face of a deflating balloon.
We’re told the inspiration for A Thousand Beautiful Things was a diverse, international record collection owned by Williams’ father and a map the two kept of music origins, yet ,excepting a novelty list song (perfectly enunciated verbal gymnastics) and one about time—neither number as strong as its peers—the evening doesn’t concern itself with geography. We’re told the evening illuminates “difficult journeys that people take,” yet most lyrics present a state of mind/heart rather than transition.
A Thousand Beautiful Things is skillfully performed. Arrangements are terrific, occasionally breathtaking. Piano and vocal breathe together. Direction is adroit. Individual numbers are of themselves affecting and often eclectic (a plus for those of us hearing the same songs night after night). I would go see a presentation by these collaborators again in a shot.