If the invitation would have been to see the genre-bending Portland-based cabaret-style self-described ‘little orchestra,’ Pink Martini, featuring China Forbes with special guest star Meow Meow, that would have been enough. If the invitation had been for Pink Martini as the premiere performance of Washington Performing Arts’ new 2019/2020 season, which promises to be delightfully eclectic with an international collection of classical, jazz, and choral concerts, that would have been enough.
I was not expecting sing-a-longs, balloons, streamers, conga lines, and Scott Simon from NPR’s “Weekend Edition” reprising a role Peter Sellars once made famous.
I was a Pink Martini novice, you see. The ebullient, party-loving fans of Pink Martini, who packed the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Sunday night, were wiser than me. At first, I felt like I was crashing their party—their bring-down-the-house-25th-anniversary-to-the-day party. I didn’t have time to fret. Pink Martini’s founder, maestro, and pianist Thomas M. Lauderdale soon kicked the festivities into high gear.
If there was a thematic thread to the evening, it was to reminisce how Pink Martini first came together. It all began at Harvard, where Lauderdale graduated with a degree in History and Literature in 1992, though where he admittedly spent most of his collegiate years in cocktail dresses, and according to the Playbill notes, “…taking on the role of ‘cruise director’ throwing waltzes with live orchestras and ice sculptures.” In 1994, he founded Pink Martini to play political fundraisers for progressive causes (and weddings) in Portland, Oregon. This pedigree made the staid Kennedy Center Concert Hall the perfect place to hold the band’s silver anniversary.
The Concert Hall, however, was anything but restrained on Sunday night.
China Forbes, Harvard classmate of Lauderdale, as well as an actress, co-writer of many of the band’s songs, and lead singer, began the evening with a crowd-pleasing trio of songs sung in English and French. The last song, “Over the Valley,” dedicated to her 10-year-old son, was given a rendition worthy of Judy Garland.
A major surprise of the first act was guest Scott Simon. He performed with Forbes a duet first sung by Sophia Loren and Peter Sellars about a doctor and his flirtatious patient. “There’s nothing I can do because my heart is jumping too…goodness gracious,” rang out Simon in his imitable NPR “Weekend Edition” voice.
A star of the first act was Edna Vazquez. In a white suit and slicked-back hair, her sultry voice sang an even sultrier classic, “Bésame Mucho.” In the upper right corner above the stage, facing the audience, two couples could not resist—and slow danced. She was accompanied by haunting guitar riffs performed by Dan Faehnle. Her second song, “Sola Soy,” the title song from her album of the same name, started without the full band, with only Vazquez solo on the acoustic guitar, singing thrillingly about loneliness.
The first act special guest who brought down the house, however, was Jimmie Herrod. He sang an achingly beautiful jazz-inspired number, “Exodus.” The last line exclaimed, in praise-worthy, powerful tones, “This land is mine,” and many in the audience leaped to their feet, offering a standing ovation in response.
The audience was ready for the next guest star: Storm Large, who belted out a comedic-tragic love ballad set in 1952’s Havana, “And Then You’re Gone,” as she channeled Rita Moreno in her signature cherry-red evening dress. Another special guest—Ari Shapiro of NPR fame—soon strode on stage in a snazzy tuxedo to respond to Storm Large. Shapiro, a Portland, Oregon native, discovered Pink Martini twenty-five years ago when he “Used to sneak into bars I was too young for…to see Pink Martini.” He now has a side gig as a crooner and regularly performs with Pink Martini. He charmingly rendered, “But Now I’m Back,” a pitch-perfect rebuttal to Storm Large’s ballad. Shapiro followed up his comic turn with a Maurice Chevalier moment when he performed “Et Maintenant” in French.
Ultimately, the first act ended on a rousing standard that is, apparently, a regular part of Pink Martini shows: Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman.” It was a get up-out-of-your-seats-and- join-us-on-stage-moment, and the crowd was ready. Over a hundred women rushed the stage and joined China Forbes and Storm Large leading the sing-a-long.
The party was just beginning for what would be a two-and-a-half-hour concert event featuring over twenty songs.
The second act opened with cabaret sensation Meow Meow, and her big voice and even bigger comedic talents. Dressed in a glittering, skintight, metallic evening dress, she commanded the stage. The first number was marked by audience participation and physical comedy. However, it was the second song that I fell in love with, “Ne Me Quitte Pas.” A George Gershwin-inspired number, written by her and maestro Lauderdale, with Lauderdale making love to the piano, and Meow Meow making love to the audience as she sang in English and French. I was no longer in the Kennedy Center–I was in Paris; I was lured into a smoky 1920s cabaret.
Throughout the evening, the percussion and brass, especially Gavin Bondy on trumpet and Robert Taylor on trombone, punctuated the evening with their impressive range. Timothy Nishimoto, who performed a high-energy number in Japanese in the first act, lent even more energy to the percussion section along with Brian Davis, Reinhardt Melz, and in particular, Miguel Bernal on the congas. Pepe Rafael, looking like a debonair cocktail lounge singer out of the 1950s, rounded out the evening performances. Though his voice was no match for the others, his style certainly captivated the stage.
The evening culminated with Herrod performing a heart-rendering version of “Tomorrow” from the musical Annie—and the crowd on its feet and suddenly segueing into a conga line, dancing in the aisles as the ‘little orchestra’ played on to a hand-clapping, swinging medley. Balloons fell, then streamers.
If, at first, I felt like I was crashing someone else’s party, by the end of the evening, Pink Martini had me on my feet, if not quite on the conga line, feeling like I was an insider. I was on board Lauderdale’s cruise, and he was still, after twenty-five years, the cruise director.
The party was a one-night-only event, but Pink Martini is currently touring around the country to celebrate their 25th anniversary. The band’s original music, their multiple CDs and hipster-loving LP albums are worth listening to whenever you need to be transported to another time.
Running Time: Two and a half hours, including one 20-minute intermission.
Pink Martini, presented by Washington Performing Arts, performed October 13, 2019, at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. For tickets to future Kennedy Center events, call the box office at 202-467-4600, or go online.
This fall, Washington Performing Arts presents a full lineup of masterful performances, including at the Kennedy Center: the Hayes Piano series with Drew Petersen on Saturday, October 19 at 2 pm; The Spektral Quartet on Tuesday, October 29 at 7:30 pm; and at Strathmore: Jazz piano legend and 22-time Grammy-winner Chick Corea with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade on Wednesday, October 30 at 8 pm. For tickets and information, visit Washington Performing Arts online.