Miss this show at your own expense – it is musical storytelling at the highest level.
by Stephen Mosher Sep. 22, 2022
When I was a kid, I loved television variety specials. Sometimes they were big cast variety programs like the TV shows of Sonny and Cher, The Captain and Tennille, or The Carol Burnett Show, and that was great, but what I really loved were the TV specials that were single star-centric. Because I grew up in Europe I had a lot of different outlets for seeing such programs because European television stations seemed to have access to lots of older specials that had sort of circulated out of rotation on American TV, and that is where I caught TV specials from the Sixties (Carol Channing and Pearl Bailey On Broadway) and the Seventies (Shirley MacLaine The Gypsy In My Soul) and the Eighties (Lynda Carter Street Life), as well as episodes of the original TV variety programs like The Judy Garland Show, The Julie Andrews Show, hour-long specials by pop star Helen Reddy and French chanteuse Mireille Mathieu, and TV appearances by Charles Aznavour and Liza Minnelli. These programs were like a tonic to me, like nectar, like manna from heaven, and it was through the viewing of programming like this that I learned about the true nature of storytelling through musical monology: this is where I, first, learned that it was about more than just standing up there and singing the notes – it was about the artist immersing their self into all the parts of the composition, from the lyrics, to the notes, to the treatments.
Although they are availalbe and can be found, nobody needs to YouTube any of those TV specials to get that lesson today. There is a prime example of musical storytelling available to any New Yorker who wants to leave their home and go out for a night of impeccable entertainment, and it exists in the person of Amy Beth Williams, who opened her show GREAT LADIES, GREAT SONGS last night at Don’t Tell Mama.
Great Ladies, Great Songs had a debut back in 2018 and would have moved forward into future cabaret seasons, but Amy Beth Williams tends to keep an arsenal of shows at the ready, and there were wonderful distractions from MEET ME AT THE BAR, A BEAUTIFUL MYSTERY, and A THOUSAND BEAUTIFUL THINGS, to say nothing of the lockdown and shutdown that kept clubs empty for over a year. Now, only a few months after winning the cabaret industry’s top prize for nightclub singers, Amy Beth Williams has dusted off Great Ladies, Great Songs so that she can spend a little more time with this show, and so that her fans and admirers (and new, will-be fans and admirers) can get a glimpse at what perfection in performance looks like.
Great Ladies, Great Songs is (as the title would suggest) Amy Beth Williams‘ salute to the the women of song, specifically, the women whose music has resonated with her, throughout her life. The daughter of a man who loved music and who nurtured an extensive record collection, there was never a time when Williams wasn’t exposed to exceptional musical artistry (although she did have to strike out on her own when it came to rock music, of which her father, most adamantly, did not approve). So her seventy-five minute long exploration into the works of Misses Bassey and Garland, into the songs of Eydie and Dusty, into the contributions of Warwick, Stafford, and London is no mere random collection of songs that Amy wanted to sing: many of the musical offerings are accompanied by anecdotes and factoids about Amy, the artist, her father, and her life history. This is not an absolute because Amy (and director Tanya Moberly) are creatives who understand that which all great choreographers teach: the moments of stillness are part of the program, too. There is no need to set up every story, there is no reason to talk, unless there is something to say; so Amy Beth says that which will inform the arc of her show and allows the rest to remain in the storytelling lane.
And that is where the Master Class begins.
Talent like that possessed by Amy Beth Williams does not come along every day. Indeed, one is lucky if it comes into one’s life at least once a year, if only to act as inspiration for living life and making art to one’s fullest potential. Talent of this level requires an undefinable combination of something with which a person has been born, proper training at one’s craft, and ingenious instinct that guides an audience down a path and deeper into a story than they would, otherwise, have thought possible. It’s a quality that cannot be bought or taught, it simply exists, as it has in artists throughout history, a quality that causes audience gasps at the simple flicking of a wrist (like happened last night), sighs from the lowering of the head to one side (like happened last night), and guffaws due to comic timing so surprising as to make a person wonder where the artist found that nuance. That’s Amy Beth Williams, all over the place.
Great Ladies, Great Songs isn’t only a celebration of the vocalists whose artistry has informed Amy Beth, for the program also honors the writers of the songs that made those women the stars that they were. The show art for Great Ladies, Great Songs lists the names of (some of) the singers and the songwriters, and it’s a mouth-watering collection of creatives around which to wrap one’s brain, particularly when thinking about those works of art in the hands of Amy Beth Williams… but there are more hands involved here than Amy’s. There is the ABW team, and they are offering Amy support like that for which every singing artist wishes, of which every musical storyteller dreams. With Moberly keeping the action moving and concise from the front of the house, WIlliams can relax into her onstage comfort zone because she is backed by a band responsible for music that will take the breath away. Working alone, bassist Ritt Henn and percussionist Don Kelly are already great (not good: great) musicians, but when put into a situation where they are given the privilege to support an artist like Amy Williams while working alongside one another, there is a synergy that takes the sounds that they make to the next level. Under the guidance of Musical Director Ian Herman, that level is the best one attainable. Herman’s arrangements never intrude on Williams’ storytelling, yet they are exciting, inventive, and interesting. His piano playing, whether supporting Williams or soloing during Amy’s break from the song, are a mass of virtuosity, and any audience member lucky enough to be seated within eyesight of his fingers would be advised to watch The Olympics of the Eighty-Eights for which the Maestro is to be admired. Together, these four musicians are making music that would thrill and elate a blind person, so having full benefit of all five senses is akin to musical entertainment on steroids.
And Amy Williams is at the center of the storm.
There is nobody like Amy Beth Williams. From the moment she steps onto the stage, there is absolute intention in every moment. There is an eloquence to everything that she does, be it vocally, physically, or simple stillness. Every expression, every note, every aspect of her performance is articulate, and nothing is over-produced or over-performed. Scholars in the Middle Ages posited the question of the number of angels that could sit on the head of a pin. With the performance of each additional number last night came a world of wonder in new acting choices, different emotional expressions, and storytelling nuance, and one could see that the angels on the pinheads are endless: there can be as many as Amy Beth Williams can produce – a gift for which she, apparently, has boundless resources. There is nobody like Amy Beth Williams.
At this point, readers may have noticed that no mention of a single song has been made in this review. I have made the conscious choice to omit these details, by way of avoiding spoilers. There are clues on the postcard for the show, by way of names of both singers and songwriters, but this writer found the experience of having the numbers unveiled in real-time to be like a carnival ride – a wonderful, glorious, thrilling, and emotional carnival ride – and I would like to preserve that ride for the next patrons that get on it. I will say this: Amy Beth can sing anything and sound good doing it, and guests can look forward to being particularly satisfied by two different Judy Garland numbers, one special Marilyn Maye tune, a thrilling nod to Diahann Carroll, and segments inspired by Jo Stafford and Julie London, and for true drama and one gay gasp after another, there is Amy’s choice representing Dame Shirley Bassey. No stone is left unturned in Amy Beth’s mission as a musical monologuist – the only thing is that Amy doesn’t have to work hard or even exert herself to turn the stones over. She just does it – like normal people just breathe. It’s a part of who she is, and that’s a big part of what makes Amy Beth Williams special.
Please, dear reader, take this reporter’s advice: don’t miss this chance. At this time, there is only one other performance of this club act planned, so, please, get a ticket to Amy’s show tomorrow night (September 23rd) at 7 pm. And if you’re a cabaret performer, a musical storyteller, a nightclub singer, if you are a person who aspires to be the best musical storyteller you can be, see Amy Beth Williams at work to see how it’s done.
Nobody will be sorry for having seen this show.
Photos by Stephen Mosher.