Ballet and belts: Smuin Ballet and Sam Harris

May 09

It was a perfect Friday-night cultural double feature: opening night of Smuin Ballet’s spring season at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and then a quick dash to the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko for Sam Harris’ late night cabaret gig.

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I’m no dance critic, so I won’t even try to analyze the three pieces of Smuin’s highly enjoyable spring season, but I will share what I loved. I fully expected to enjoy St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet, the last narrative ballet Michael Smuin completed before his death two years ago. Originally conceived for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, this dance version of the 1946 Broadway musical by Harold Arlen (music), Johnny Mercer (lyrics) and writers Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen was part of Berkeley’s Cal Performances season in 2004.

This version uses the same Tony Walton set and Willa Kim costumes (both hot and gorgeous) but seemed shorter. It uses a recorded soundtrack of Arlen’s irresistible music and the great Arlen-Mercer songs such as “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home,” “Cakewalk Your Lady,” “Ridin’ on the Moon” and “It’s a Woman’s Prerogative.”

I have to admit it’s a little weird to see a story that’s supposed to be performed by an all African-American cast inhabited by a predominantly white cast. But the dancing is flashy and fun, full of Broadway pizzazz and flash.

The real stand-out of the night for me is the second piece, Bouquet, which Smuin choreographed to the music of Shostakovich. Romantic and achingly beautiful, the piece begins with a pas de quatre (Erin Yarbrough-Stewart, Darren Anderson, Ryan Camou and Shannon Hurlburt) and ends with a pas de deux by Brooke Reynolds and Aaron Thayer that is an exquisite expression of love through dance.

For information about the Smuin season tour, visit www.smuinballet.org.

It’s a shame that Sam Harris is only in town for two late shows (his second is tonight, Saturday, May 9) at the Rrazz Room. He deserves a much longer run, but he’s got a year-old baby and a busy career developing sitcoms and getting ready to star in a Broadway-bound musical (The First Wives Club). We’ll take what we can get.

Harris is as much a comedian as he is a singer. He compared the Rrazz Room to his own living room and said of his boyfriend (now husband) of 14 years, Danny Jacobsen, that they have been five of the best years of his life, not consecutive. “When we got married I didn’t know what true love was. And now it’s too late.” Bad dum bum.

Even though the late show was “so past my bedtime – I’m serious” Harris and his extraordinary pianist/musical director Todd Schroeder put on a remarkably good and varied show, which opened with U2′s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for,” given the full gospel treatment, merged with Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here” re-written with lyric references to Harris’ career, his sobriety, his family, etc. It might be noted that Cher opened her interminable farewell tour with “I Still Haven’t Found…” but that didn’t even seem like the same song Harris sang.

With his big voice, crazy range and complete comfort on stage, Harris was a delight from beginning to end, whether he was chiding Rrazz management for not providing him with a towel (he borrowed one from a gentleman in the front row who just happened to have his gym bag – ah, San Francisco!) or forgetting the lyrics to his intensely emotional version of “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”

Song choices were all over the place, from Harold Arlen’s 1930s ode to ganja in “The Wail of the Reefer Man” to the James Taylor-Carly Simon version of “Mockingbird” song full throttle with Schroeder to a moving version of Maury Yeston’s tender “New Words.” Harris was practically a one-man Broadway show on the amped-up “Ain’t We Got Fun,” an aggressively cynical take on the Depression-happy tune, which Schroeder pounded through with bravura ferocity.

A gimmick purporting to take audience suggestions for show tunes resulted in an aborted “Ease on Down the Road” and a full-throttle “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and a jazzy “My Favorite Things.”

Harris pulled out all the vocal/emotional stops on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Over the Rainbow” before closing the show with a gentle “In My Life.”

It seemed we were just getting going when the show was over, leaving us wanting more, which is always a good thing.

Keep up with Harris, his calendar, his projects and his video blogs at www.samharris.com.

 

 

One comment

  1. Chad You were really busy that night. I don’t have the energy to try that any longer. However I am trying that in several weeks by seeing “The Wedding Singer” at a matinee in Concord and dashing to Berkeley to see the opening of “You Nero” at Berkeley Rep.

    The highlight of the Sumin Ballet was for me “St. Louis Woman: a Blues Ballet” and I did not mind the all white cast of dancers. It reminded me of an MGM musical and I was expecting to see Vera Ella or Cyd come dancing out. I had seen the Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer musical at the Martin Beck in 1946. I was just getting discharged from the United State Army Air Force after spending almost two years in the Pacific. My discharge was at Ft. Dix and a buddy took me into Manhattan to see Pearl Bailey and Juanita Hall. I loved the musical maybe because after two years in the Pacific Theatre of War, I wanted some entertainment. This musical hit the spot.

    When I heard the opening bars of the musical canned of course on Friday it brought back great memories. I was sitting next to a dancer and I think our body movements were in unison through out the production.

    I did think that “Bouguet” was exquisite especially the Brooke Reynolds and Aaron Thayer whose bodies melted together in the second dance to Shostakovich’s music. Jessica Touchet was very vivacious as The Naughty Boy in the first ballet. Good night of ballet.

    Would have love to have seen Sam Harris but I was just too tired. I remember Eddy and I saw him in “That’s Life” in New York. He was the best person in that tired musical.

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