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Valerie Lemon in a dark evening gown

Valerie Lemon in With a Song in My Heart - The Jane Froman Songbook

Grand Center Cabaret Series

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Cabaret artists draw inspiration for their shows from a variety of sources. Valerie Lemon's tribute to the late singer and radio, film and television star Jane Froman, however, is the first such show in my experience to be inspired by a mix of the supernatural and the Internet (and no, they're not the same thing).

It seems that while Ms. Lemon was recovering from surgery and, by her own admission, zonked to the eyebrows on Demerol, she had a dream in which a glamorous, dark-haired woman in long black gloves and a strapless evening gown (the same outfit Ms. Lemon wears to great effect in her first act) took her hand and introduced herself as Jane Froman. Ms. Lemon staggered downstairs to her computer, Googled Froman, and found herself looking at the very image of the woman in her dreams - an image she had never seen before that night.

I'm not sure what skeptics like Penn Gillette or James Randi might make of this proposed partnership from The Other Side, but Ms. Lemon and pianist / arranger Don Rebic have made it the basis for a mostly entertaining and somewhat superficially informative evening of songs closely associated with Ms. Froman. Selections range from familiar standards such as the title tune, "It's a Good Day", "Blue Moon", and an ingenious quodlibet combining "Summertime" and "It Ain't Necessarily So" to the less familiar "We Meet Again" by film veteran Alfred Newman and the obscure "June Kisses" from the early 1930s. There are also some rarely heard novelties such as the droll "They're Either Too Young or Too Old" by Frank Loesser and Arthur Schwartz (a World War II hit covered by performers as diverse as the Tommy Dorsey orchestra and Bette Davis) and "Millionaires Don't Whistle", a surprisingly clunky attempt at humor by Forrest and Wright, who would go on to much bigger and better things such Song of Norway, Kismet, and the underrated Kean.

Ms. Lemon clearly has a great deal of affection for both this material and Froman, a Missouri native who returned to the state of her birth in retirement and became famous all over again for her philanthropic work. She seasons the evening liberally with anecdotes about Ms. Froman's life, but the resulting portrait, while no doubt more accurate than the glossy one painted by the 1952 biopic With a Song in My Heart (where, in classically Hollyweird style, Susan Hayward's singing was dubbed by Froman herself), is nevertheless rather short on depth. Happily, Ms. Lemon's musical good taste and strong, classically trained voice serve her well in the actual performances. She also gets solid support from Mr. Rebic on piano and (in that Porgy and Bess medley) vocals as well as from local bassist Kim LaCoste. Both Mr. Rebic and Ms. LaCoste are Grand Center Cabaret veterans and it's good to have them back on stage, even if Ms. Lemon's highly structured show doesn't provide them the kinds of solo breaks they've gotten in past Cabaret Series appearances.

That structure, in fact, is symptomatic of the show's only real weakness. From her first appearance on stage, Ms. Lemon approaches the evening with a kind of recital hall formality and slightly artificial theatricality which, while not at all inappropriate for the concert stage (where she has apparently had substantial experience) or the opera house, is a bit off-putting in the relatively intimate environment of cabaret. She has great musical credentials and is clearly working hard to produce a polished show but that, in itself, is part of the problem. The great cabaret artists - Steve Ross or Andrea Marcovicci, for example - also put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into their shows, but when they're performing they present, at the very least, the illusion of effortless grace. They draw the audience in to the performances emotionally and, on occasion, physically in a way that always appears natural and unforced. In contrast, for the entire two hours of With a Song in My Heart, I was never allowed to forget that the famed Fourth Wall of the theatre was firmly in place.

In all fairness, it must be said that this was my first exposure to Ms. Lemon's work on stage, so I have no idea how much of the show's formality was the result of opening night jitters and/or a lack of substantial experience in the relatively rarefied atmosphere of cabaret. Either way, Ms. Lemon strikes me a bright enough to learn from experience and talented enough to make use of what she learns, so it should be interesting to see what the future brings in this area.

With a Song in My Heart - The Jane Froman Songbook continues through this Sunday [November 13, 2005] at the Sheldon Concert Hall. For tickets call Metrotix at 314-534-1111.

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Copyright 2003 Chuck Lavazzi

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