No matter what your taste in music and entertainment, NYC’s legendary nightclubs have it, as proven by three selections that kicked off the week at don’t tell mama, Birdland, and Joe’s Pub. And though they were one-night-only performances, you can be sure that the popular artists who packed the houses will return for future engagements – just as they did this time following their past successes at the venues.
Now celebrating its 40th anniversary, don’t tell mama, established in 1982, welcomed back Vangari for an encore performance of Cautionary Tales, nominated for two Broadway World Awards in 2021. The mother-daughter duo of Evangeline Johns and Ariana Johns, masterfully accompanied by Musical Director Darryl Curry on piano and vocals (and hilarious heckling!), performed a one-hour eclectic set list of hits from the 1920s to the 2010s, from blues and jazz to country, rock, and Broadway, from Bessie Smith to Kander and Ebb and The Cure.
With top-notch arrangements by Curry, choreography by Max McGuire and Mark Mindek, and lots of comical repartee between and during the numbers, the show took on a Vaudevillian sensibility, opening with The Beatles’ throwback “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” (even the bowler hats with glittering silver bands, in which the women took the stage, evoked the style and fun of the era). Mom Evangeline brought her deep strong voice and breath control to her solos on “Don’t Smoke in Bed” by Willard Robison, a medley of country songs (the music on which she grew up and in which she finds parallels with the blues), and the Great American Songbook classic “My Funny Valentine” from the Rodgers and Hart musical Babes in Arms. And daughter Ariana’s higher pitch and emotive expression were featured in her renditions of the more recent “Our House” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young and “Liquid Lunch” by Dutch pop and jazz singer Caro Emerald (amusingly accompanying herself on martini-glass maracas!).
Among the favorites of the show were the Johns’ harmonies on “Blue Blues” and the up-tempo “Java Jive” (with the terrific Darryl delightfully joining in on both), their familial banter and laughs (and obvious love and respect for one another) on “The Apple Doesn’t Fall Very Far from the Tree” (from the 1984 Broadway musical The Rink), and their uplifting encore of the 1944 WWII-period song “Accentuate the Positive” by Johnny Mercer (lyrics) and Harold Arlen (music), which they dedicated to the people of Ukraine and intended for it to leave the audience with a smile on their faces (it did).
Vangari: Cautionary Tales played on Sunday, March 27, at 4 pm, at don’t tell mama, 343 West 46th Street, NYC.
That same evening, Birdland presented Marissa Licata Quartet: Strings on Fire, marking the show’s return to the iconic jazz club’s intimate subterranean theater for two encore performances after the internationally acclaimed electric violinist’s headliner debut there in September 2021. Accompanied by Michael Aarons on guitar, Martin Doykin on bass, and Shannon Ford on drums, the classically trained, highly innovative, and experimental Licata led the musicians through a diversified mix of instrumental pieces and three select songs that featured vocals by guest singer Aury Krebs (whom she met six months ago during her previous appearance at Birdland and invited to perform with her this time).
Shining throughout the 80-minute program were Licata’s vibrant and affecting love of music, dazzling virtuosity on the violin, and obvious enjoyment of playing. The passionate standing performance included inspired segments of improvisation and untitled selections of traditional Bulgarian, Serbian, and Klezmer folk music with unexpected meters, fiery gypsy rhythms, and blockbuster crescendos that showcased her signature flair and lightning-fast fingering and bowing. She and the band also showed their command of jazz and jazz-fusion in Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” the musicians’ featured solos and jamming, and Krebs’ smooth and resonant vocals on Be Steadwell’s “Greens” and “Feelin’ Good” (written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse for the 1964 musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd).
And the variety didn’t end. There was Astor Piazzolla’s 1974 “Libertango” (the title, combining “Libertad” and “tango,” symbolizing Piazzolla’s break from classical tango to tango nuevo), an exquisite interpretation of the 1939 musical classic “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz (we could almost hear the violin singing the lyrics in Licata’s bittersweet performance), and more, plus a funky encore of The Pointer Sisters’ “How Long (Betcha’ Got a Chick on the Side)” that had the endlessly talented Licata and Ford providing back-up vocals for Krebs and left the audience looking forward to her next return to Birdland.
Marissa Licata Quartet: Strings on Fire played on Sunday, March 27, at 7 and 9:30 pm, at Birdland Theater, downstairs at Birdland Jazz Club, 315 W. 44th Street, NYC.
On Monday, March 28, a narrative song cycle from Desaparecidas, the new musical-in-progress by Jaime Lozano, Florencia Cuenca, and Rachel Stevens, premiered at Joe’s Pub with a powerhouse all-Latina cast, shining a spotlight on the challenges faced by Mexican women in a dangerous world of traditional gender-based oppression, violence, femicide, and machismo. Emceed by the effervescent and engaging Cuenca, who provided background commentary and set-ups for the characters and their songs, the concert’s feminist theme of empowerment had an exuberant fighting tone that celebrated the strength of these “badass women” and their hope for the future with the protest movement’s cry: #NiUnaMas (desaparecida) – not one more (missing woman).
For non-Spanish-speaking members of the audience, the concert included projected English translations of the Spanish-language songs so everyone could follow along and embrace the momentous message of the hour-long show, which was developed by Cuenca and Lozano during an artists’ residency with the Brooklyn-based theater company The Civilians in 2020-2021. Recounting the actual words and true stories of individual women in Ciudad Juárez who were interviewed for the project, the numbers featured inspiring lyrics by Lozano and Cuenca, the sounds and rhythms of Mexican-style music by Lozano, who also provided the arrangements and orchestrations, and music direction by Jhoely Garay.
The stellar vocal performances by Cuenca, Sonia de los Santos, Aline Mayagoitia, Majo Rivero, and the renowned Daphne Rubin-Vega (Rent; In the Heights) captured all the inherent emotion of generations of women, while bringing apropos movements and full empathy to their musical roles, backed by the phenomenal band of Garay and Lolivone de la Rosa on guitars, Jordyn Davis on bass, Wen-Ting Wu on drums, Simone Baron on accordion, and Lozano on keyboard, guitar, and bajo quinto. They had everyone in the house joining in on the spirited refrains of “No No No” and “Ni Una Más” with passion and commitment to the important cause and to the outstanding show that’s championing it.
Desaparecidas played on Monday, March 28, at 7 pm, at Joe’s Pub, inside The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, NYC.