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Romance Seen Through Song

Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers & Hart songs at MetroStage.

Think of the new show at MetroStage as a cabaret club act, or think of it as a musical — but think of it when you are thinking of entertainment during the holiday season. Whether you sit in the theater seats on the steeply raked risers or at one of the cabaret tables on the floor before the stage sipping a drink from the bar in the lobby, the play offers more pure delights in just over one hour than many other theatrical offerings can pack into three.

Jimi Ray Malary, who pleased audiences here at MetroStage in bio-revues as the Duke in "Ellington" and as Nat "King" Cole in "King of Cool," both of which were solo shows, is joined on stage this time by local jazz vocalist Lori Williams in a survey of romance as portrayed in the songs of the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart and Jerome Kern.

Not just a string of songs, however good those songs may be, the show has a structure that works well. Written by Seattle playwright David Hunter Koch, who directs the production as well, the evening is structured as a look at the life cycle of a romance. From first sight to last sigh, Koch has Malary and Williams explore the stages of love through songs that capture in both music and words the feel of each moment of an affair.

The songs are standards of the American song book, the best of the popular songs of the 1930s and 40s. The craft of their writers was impeccable. They structured their songs in such a way as to capture the essence of an emotion. When they wrote of new love it was with a jauntiness that reflected the excitement of discovery. When the subject was more mature, developed affection, it was portrayed with the longer melodic lines of deeper romance. The anger and disappointment at the end of an affair got sharper, even angular musical and lyrical strokes.

All of this is presented with a narrative, mostly delivered by Malary, which uses some of the great quotations of the period ("We are each of us angels with only one wing, and we can only fly by embracing one another") or lines from lyrics ("If dreams are made of imagination / I'm not afraid of my own creation").

Malary’s deep, resonant voice gives both spoken and sung words a richness that matches the melodies, while Williams’ bright jazziness sharpens the effect of a well-crafted turn of phrase or a made-up scat to elaborate on a melody line.

They progress through over 30 songs in the 75 minutes of the show which means they often only have time for one chorus of each song — just enough to demonstrate its essential message and the skill with which it matched the emotion it portrayed.

Most of the songs are sung solo. Malary and Williams only team up for duets on seven numbers. But there is never a feeling that they are going their own way without the other. There is a chemistry between them that works throughout the evening quite well.

The song selection shows that Koch has a keen ear for the strengths of popular songs of the period. All of the songs are remarkable because of the match between the music and the lyric and how both serve to convey a specific emotion. From the Gershwins, the range goes from clever ("They All Laughed," "But Not For Me" and "Lets Call the While Thing Off") to the dramatic ("A Woman Is A Sometime Thing") and to the lushly romantic ("Someone to Watch Over Me," "Love Is Here To Stay").

Jerome Kern’s way with a melody is represented by songs with a range of lyricists from Johnny Mercer ("I’m Old Fashioned") to Oscar Hammerstein II (the rarely heard "The Folks Who Live On The Hill"). Rodgers and Hart are represented with the witty ("I Wish I Were In Love Again," "This Can’t Be Love") to the overtly sentimental ("My Romance" and the title song).

William Knowles who penned the arrangements for the show is at the piano, swinging gently and supporting solidly. Greg Holloway handles the drums set with a bit of a mechanical feel at times. Williams’ husband Yusef Chisholm is on bass, filling in and providing a grounding to the sound of the show.

<i>Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits <a href="http://www.potomacstages.com/">Potomac Stages</a>, a Web site covering theater in the region. He can be reached at<a href="mailto:"Brad@PotomacStages.com"> Brad@PotomacStages.com</a>.</i>