by David Dower
I'm at White Oak in Florida with director Philip Himberg, musical director Jeff Harris, and the wonderful Maureen McGovern. People of a certain age will have priceless, silly memories of belting out her "disaster hits" Can You Read My Mind and A Morning After back in the 1970's. She's got one of the great voices of a generation. If you don't believe me, take a listen to the samples from A Long and Winding Road on Amazon.com. (The album was just named one of the Top Ten Vocal Albums of 2008 by TalkinBroadway.com)
So we're here at this eccentric and beautiful retreat, a mix of animal sanctuary (there are Rhinos on the road in and Antelope outside my bedroom window) and artists' retreat (this is where Baryishnikov launched his White Oak Dance Project). Philip is the Artistic Director of the Sundance Theater Lab, which also uses this place for developing ensemble and musical projects. The Women of Brewster Place had a residency here two years ago.
And what I'm doing is listening to Maureen sing. In this gorgeous setting. Just me and Philip and her outstanding musical director, Jeff, on the piano. And we're talking about the structure of the evening that she'll be bringing to Arena Stage this spring. The evening is based on a very successful cabaret performance she did last year, built from the songs on this album. (As we reported earlier, it earned her a citation as one of the Top Ten Diva performances of the year...)
A heads up for anyone thinking about seeing her here at Arena. She's only here for 14 performances. So, time to stop thinking about it and make a plan...
The way the evening is structured, it now builds to a surprisingly (to me) emotional pay off. It somehow manages to feel very intimate and very much about an entire generation. She sings Joni Mitchell's Circle Game in the first third of the show and I start to think about the ways in which I can look "back from where we came" and find the truth and prescience of the lyrics. She sings Carry It On, and I'm struck by the way the new administration brings full circle the promise of that song. And The Times They Are A' Changing feels fresh as paint in this arrangement-- like it should have been sung at the Inauguration. She sings Life Goes On, an unfamiliar (to me) Stephen Schwartz song about loss, and I'm reminded of the dozens of friends I lost in the darkest days of the AIDS pandemic. She sings MacArthur Park (a song I've never understood or cared for) and I feel a lump forming in my throat as the lyrics send me flipping through a mental photo album of my own life. And when she finally hits John Lennon's Imagine, we're all astonished at the alchemy of this song list, these two performers, the sparse but delightful stories from her own life, and the incredible arrangements that Jeff has given her to work with.
I'm flummoxed by Maureen's ability to take songs I've sung my whole life, lyrics I could recite from heart, and render them for me in ways that reveal I've never understood the depth of their meaning. When you hear her version of Let It Be or Fire and Rain or even Pirate Jenny (OK, so I didn't exactly grow up singing that one in the shower...) they surprise you.
But she's also very funny. I wasn't really expecting the goofy side of Maureen McGovern, but it is the clincher. The show is filled with funny moments, both in song and story. The description of singing Morning After on an airplane is alone worth the price of admission!
I hope you will make the time to come see what I've seen. And that you'll write us at Stage Banter to tell us what the ride was like for you. You won't have the rhinos and the antelope to witness it, but I'm still betting it'll be an unforgettable visit to Crystal City!