Its latest revue, That Old Black Magic, the '40s Songs of Harold Arlen is about as tasty as you would want.
In the intimate space of Ovations Night Club, you sit snuggled up against other patrons in club chairs, drink in hand, all focused on the small stage with its phalanx of microphones and a glistening grand piano. It feels very adult, like you're attending a swank supper club in Manhattan. OK, you have to use your imagination for the full effect, but it's a singular impression.
Hope, an Alley theater veteran and American musical connoisseur is, you may know, the former artistic director of Bayou City Concert Musicals, the late-lamented company that performed incomparable versions of neglected Broadway musicals. The shows were minimal in set design, the orchestra was on stage behind the actors, yet the shows were complete in everything else. If you were fortunate to see Kurt Weill and Ogdan Nash's One Touch of Venus or Burton Lane and E.Y. Harburg's Finian's Rainbow or Stephen Sondheim's Follies, you were in the presence of theater magic at its most mesmerizing.
Hope had always been producing his own one-man lecture-demonstrations that deconstructed the work of individual songwriters. He'd use recordings and his own unlimited fount of backstage knowledge and gossip to paint his portraits of Irving Caesar, early Gershwin, Berlin before Hollywood, and so many others. These one-time-only performances, delivered in weird little places throughout Houston, had a cult following of like-minded Broadway Babies.
He's taken this concept up many notches in his current Cabaret shows. He's added singers for one, some of Houston's best talent. Once staged in the cavernous conference space at Ensemble Theatre, he's found a more suitable venue at Ovations.
The shows are still full of gossip and lore, thanks to the charmingly devilish intros to each song by Hope. Then we hear the song, sigh in appreciation, and we're off to another one, following the chronology of whomever Hope is celebrating.
Celebration is in order in this version. Unless you are a true aficionado of the Great American Songbook, the name of Harold Arlen might produce a shrug. You wouldn't be alone. He's the famous writer whose name is least famous among the great ones. But you instinctively know his music. You've heard it all your life in some form or another. If I said, “Over the Rainbow,” “Get Happy,” “Let's Fall in Love,” “Stormy Weather,” or Groucho's signature tune, “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.” you'd smile in admiration. Oh, him, you'd say. What's his name again?
Harold Arlen, the songwriter's songwriter.
Hope's revue settles on the fertile period of his career, the '40s. So no “Rainbow,” or other delectables from The Wizard of Oz, written in 1939, or his '50s movie A Star Is Born with its indelible black-and-blues “The Man That Got Away.” But in the '40s what sparklers he penned, and Hope's fabulous cast puts them over as if auditioning for Ziegfeld. Each one's a little show-stopper.
Let's see. How about the torcher “Like a Straw in the Wind,” rendered with crystalline sultry soprano by Amanda Passanante, or “This Time the Dream's on Me,” written with Johnny Mercer for the movie Blues in the Night, purred by Grace Givens. Listen to the swingin' rendition of “That Old Black Magic” from Seth Cunningham, as if holding a whiskey. Or Tamara Siler's snappy sly take on “Legalize My Name” from the show St. Louis Woman. Listen to the fun as Brian Chambers croons“Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” the only memorable moment in the forgettable WWII flag-waver Here Comes the Waves. Brad Goertz positively swoons in “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and Whitney Zangarine breaks your heart in “I Had Myself a True Love,” another bluesy standard by Arlen and Mercer. Hope, of course, gets into the act as performer with a finely etched “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road),” written with Mercer for the Fred Astaire film The Sky's the Limit.
What also makes these nights in the cabaret shine as if in candlelight and the atmosphere of gin-soaked smoke, is that no matter how well you think you know your Arlen, Hope pulls out a new one, a true gem, like “For Every Man There's a Woman,” from the truly forgotten movie Casbah, or “It's a Woman's Prerogative (To Change Her Mind)” from St. Louis Woman.
Arlen was never interested in writing book shows, although he did, he just wanted to write songs. He had an uncanny knack for picking the wrong shows, so most of his work on Broadway never lasted long, so no revivals of Jamaica, St. Louis Woman, Bloomer Girl, House of Flowers. Only his songs remain, immortal as ever, covered by every singer of note: Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Streisand, Crosby, Pearl Bailey, Ethel Waters, Astaire. Musical director at the piano, Eduardo Guzman accompanies them like a smoky Horowitz. He should have a cigarette dangling.
Arlen's not a household name, but his music certainly is. Paul Hope & Co. with their thoroughly satisfying little revue make sure of that. What magic.
That Old Black Magic, the '40s Songs of Harold Arlen sontinues for two more performances scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Mondays, February 17 and March 2 at Ovations Night Club, 2536 Times Boulevard. For information about the venue call 713-522-9801 or visit ovationsnightclub.com. For reservations, visit the Paul Hope Cabaret ticket website, paulhopecabaret.ticketleap.com. Tickets will also be sold at the door. $20-$40.