“A chance at an intimate, up close and personal conversation.” That is how Matthew Decker, Arden Theatre Associate Artistic Director and Cabaret Series Director, described the goal of The Arden Cabaret Series—now in the midst of its inaugural year. Joilet Harris’ From Me to You With Love certainly does not disappoint.
Ms. Harris is a treasure of Philadelphia theatre and beyond. She’s also no stranger to the Arden stage. The actress is well known for her performance as Lena Younger in the Arden’s production of A Raisin in the Sun and her Barrymore Award-winning turn as Caroline Thibodeaux in Caroline, or Change, not to mention her well known portrayal of Ella Fitzgerald in Ella. However for a performer who has been seen as character after character on stage at the Arden, the Walnut Street Theatre, Act 2 Playhouse, People’s Light and Theatre Company, and Delaware Theatre Company, it is an exciting experience to see Ms. Harris as herself, using song to explore and celebrate the theme of love.
The setting for the cabaret immediately sets the tone. Cloths draped over paper lanterns, a mix of tables and chairs and an open food and drink policy create an informal atmosphere which Ms. Harris continues to encourage throughout the night. The lights are dim and people are talking freely. It’s clear this is not traditional theatre, but cabaret in true form.
Before the show starts audience members are prompted to pull pieces of paper with quotes about love from baskets. Throughout the show, between numbers, Harris repeatedly calls for audience members to read the quotes, which give way to impromptu talks about the different dynamic meanings of love. This points to the most defining and poignant characteristic of the show. “From Me to You with Love is not just about songs- it’s a dialogue between Ms. Harris, the audience and love itself.”
From the start, Ms. Harris was adamant the night was not just about her, and that audience participation was a ground rule.
The show begins with a celebration—specifically, with Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in my Life.” It was immediately refreshing to see an actress who has played world renown legends bring her own larger than life humor and personality to each song. Her faux harmonica recalling Stevie Wonder himself, is a prime example. Harris is able to weave her own sense of play and powerhouse vocals seamlessly.
In addition to shedding light on the different kinds and instances of love, the song selection allowed Ms. Harris to bring some of her own experiences to the forefront. When moving into Jill Scott’s “The Way,” the audience got a glimpse of how she and Jill Scott met at the Arden decades ago and why exactly she loves Scott’s work.
The unity and precision of Ms. Harris’ band cannot be ignored. The group consisted of Pianist and Musical Director Barry Sames and Leon Jordan Sr. on drums. These fine musicians have known each other and been playing together for twenty-five years. And it shows. Together they showcase the magic that comes when three highly talented musicians truly know how to play with and for one another. This was especially evident during numbers like Roberta Flack’s “Feel like Makin’ Love” and Peggy Lee’s “Fever.” Sames and Jordan, respectively, had solos which showcased their mastery.
A highlight of the evening was Ms. Harris’ take on “Help Me Make It Through the Night, first written by Kris Kristofferson and recorded again by Gladys Knight. It was the first somber and truly touching number of the evening, Harris backed up her reputation as a powerhouse singer and shows exactly why her voice is a prized possession in the city of Philadelphia. Experience and a life well-lived sounded in her vocals. What’s more, moments like those explored the audience’s quotes in ways only song can. Love can be wonderful and hard at the same time. Harris’ soulful vocals bore witness to that.
Ms. Harris then began a lovely tribute to the late singer Natalie Cole which included “Inseparable,” “L-O-V-E” and “Unforgettable.” The effect on the audience was obvious. “Inseparable” had couples nudging closer to one another and by the time “L-O-V-E” began, almost the entire audience was moving in their seats.
The cabaret brought out even more personal moments from Ms. Harris. For instance, when she performed a spoken word piece by her only child Corey Harris Sr., an aspiring spoken word artist. Promising her son she would perform his work and drawing his presence into the show was an act of love itself, which made it all the more appropriate for the evening.
Just as the show never stayed planted in one mood or another, it never stayed in one time either. As the performer sang songs spanning generations, time itself became a lens through which we may examine love. Harris was funny and commanded the stage with a rendition of Ida Cox’s 1939 song “One Hour Mama,” then worked in a 21st century take on love with Adele’s “Make You Feel my Love.” This was a particularly telling moment. Harris’ rendition transformed the now ubiquitous song in a completely unique way, highlighting how much of a song is shaped and defined by the singer who performs it.
Next, Ms. Harris turned to Etta James’ “At Last.” It’s this type of soul, power and depth which truly defines Joilet Harris as a performer. She was at home here and it showed.
Finally, Ms. Harris chose an upbeat version of “My Funny Valentine” to close out the night. The song—usually a ballad—brought out the best of all we had seen in Harris throughout the course of the night: playfulness, soul, experience, passion, and love.
One of the most engaging characteristics of From Me to You With Love is that nothing lingers. When we were used to looking at one shade of love, Ms. Harris introduced another. When we settled into one tone, the tenor of the evening shifted. Harris’ clearly wouldn’t have it any other way. She wanted to keep the audience on their toes. After a few songs Ms. Harris would move to audience interaction. The interaction, in turn, gave way to a personal story from Harris. At its best, the interchange between audience participation, occasional anecdote and song all served to enlighten one another and, ultimately celebrate what’s most important: our unflinching love for one another.
Running Time: One hour and forty-five minutes, with no intermission.
From Me to You With Love plays again tonight, Saturday, February 13, 2016 at 8 PM at Arden Theatre’s Hamilton Family Art’s Center – 62 North 2nd Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 922-8900, or purchase them online.