An Immigrant’s Story
The Gaslight Theater, St. Louis, MO, October 20, 2015
Reviewed by Chuck Lavazzi for Cabaret Scenes
The press release for Irish-born singer Maxine Linehan’s show concluded with a reminder that “you or your ancestors came here from somewhere, and this is your story, too.” It’s a point she emphasized at the very top of the evening as well and, at a time when our nation is suffering another one of its periodic outbreaks of nativism and anti-immigrant hysteria, hearing it was like a breath of fresh air.
Linehan’s clear, bright, and wide-ranging soprano was like a breath of fresh air. Combined with modest and sincere stage presence and a fine feel for the theatrical, it kept her show engaging and entertaining despite a lack of any real dramatic arc and a certain sameness in the song choices.
The major virtues of this show were musical. Drawing extensively from her 2014 outing An American Journey (which has an almost identical song list), the evening was distinguished by elaborate, classically inspired arrangements for piano, violin, and cello by Musical Director Ryan Shirar, which he performed flawlessly, along with violinist Elizabeth Ramos and cellist Valentina Takova. The arrangements were perfectly attuned to Linehan’s lovely voice, resulting in an overall aura of polish and professionalism. Indeed, this was a level of musicianship that is more commonly heard in the recital hall than on the cabaret stage.
The structure of the show was closer to a formal recital as well, with Linehan introducing each number and explaining what the lyrics meant to her. That made for a rather long evening—just under two hours, including a short opening segment featuring an adorable company of child dancers from the Clarkson School of Irish Dance. Combining some of those songs into medleys might have sped things up a bit and, in any case, the audience doesn’t necessarily need to have each song explained in such detail. One of the secrets of cabaret is to use the lyrics to tell your story.
That said, there were many fine moments, beginning with an opening medley of Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’ “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” (Sweet Charity) and Noël Coward’s “Sail Away.” Together they suggested (without actually spelling it out) why Linehan emigrated from Ireland back in 2001 and what she hoped to find here in the USA.
Mary Black’s “Song for Ireland” provided a moving example of the homesickness felt by so many immigrants, U2’s “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own” became a reflection on the difficulty of helping Linehan’s father cope with ALS, and the Kurt Weill/Ogden Nash collaboration “I’m a Stranger Here Myself” (One Touch of Venus) served as an amusing comment on the difficulty of finding love in a new home. She even made old chestnuts like “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and “Danny Boy” sound new.
There was also one real oddity: “The House I Live In,” from the 1942 musical Let Freedom Sing. The original version of the song’s lyrics presented a remarkably progressive vision of America, referring to “The house I live in, my neighbors white and black/The people who just came here, or from generations back.” It proved to be a bit too progressive for Hollywood, unfortunately. When the song was later recorded by Frank Sinatra for a 1947 short attacking anti-Semitism, that lyric was dropped, leaving only a brief reference to “all races and religions” and no mention of them all living together as neighbors. Linehan performed the later version, introducing it by saying that it describes what America means to her. Alas, even this mild reference to national harmony now sounds painfully naïve in light of that hysteria I mentioned earlier. It had the unfortunate effect of making her sound unaware of the turmoil currently unfolding on our political landscape.
There were also just a few too many songs about New York. That’s a good idea in Manhattan, but perhaps a bit less so out here in the Midwest.
Still, Maxine Linehan is a formidable talent and such a terrific performer that a few missteps ultimately didn’t amount to much. The evening was musically impeccable and well received by a nearly sold-out house—quite an accomplishment when you’re up against the Cardinals in the playoffs.