Bart Greenberg | November 2, 2023
Don’t Tell Mama, NYC, October 24, 2023
Reviewed by Bart Greenberg
Rian Keating is a natural-born storyteller. His tales may be funny or tragic or surprising or just plain human; but they all carry the certainty of truth. He can draw the audience toward him and bring their motions to the surface. In his newest show, Woman Songs, he traced the importance of many women in his life, from grade-school teachers to his mother and grandmother to some delightful fictional women, such as the regretful Miss Otis. The evening was filled with poignancy and love.
The song list was varied; it went from the delicate “Feed the Birds” (though he confessed that Mary Poppins intimidated him as a child) to his mother’s favorite song, “Jean” (Rod McKuen) to such raw work as James Taylor’s “Millworker” and an emotional medley of “Baby in a Box” (Amanda McBroom), “Turn Around” (Harry Belafonte/Malvina Reynolds), and “Tangled Up Puppet” (Harry Chapin). All charted the difficult choices involved in parenthood. The more emotional the material, the more effective Keating’s limited vocal abilities were. The most stirring moment of the evening was not actually a song but a heart-rending poem, The Mother, by Gwendolyn Brooks, which was part of his highly personal tale of his grandmother’s limited choices when she was confronted with an unexpected pregnancy.
Darryl Curry provided grand support as music director and pianist. The fine hand of director Tanya Moberly was evident throughout the show—in its pacing and in its staging (it’s always nice to see a performer use the entire stage and not be tied to a single spot). It was also evident in its fine arc of the charming stories starting with those of elementary school teachers (and his childhood fascination with a book detailing murders committed by the female of the species) at the beginning of the show to the dark tales of poverty and maternal struggle at its end. Although the director and the performer collaborated to build this fine story arc, it was Keating who took his audience on the journey with his immense warmth and quiet charm.