Tom Rolla’s Gardenia West Hollywood, CA April 9, 2016
Reviewed by Elliot Zwiebach for Cabaret Scenes
MaryJo Mundy is passionate, soulful and emotionally connected whenever she sings. When she’s singing the songs of Laura Nyro—songs that reflect the same total commitment—all her vocal and performance skills are heightened.
Consequently, Mundy was on fire in her tribute to the late singer-songwriter, whose music and lyrics are poignant and deeply moving—qualities that came naturally to Mundy in a powerful evening of songs and on-point patter that revealed the essence of both Mundy and Nyro as artists of the highest caliber.
Mundy was superb on “You Don’t Love Me When I Cry,” a soft, smoky ballad—her sweet spot—whose pain was reflected in her expressive eyes, and again on her rich, stunning take on “I Never Meant to Hurt You,” which was heightened by a strong closing solo by pianist Ross Kalling. She also excelled on “Wedding Bell Blues” as a soulful ballad, wailed on the psychedelic-tinged “The Confession” (featuring a powerful guitar solo by Tony Mandracchia), and had fun with the defiant, irony-tinged “Money.”
Mundy gave ample opportunities to shine to her two backup singers—Alexis Fae Gach and Andrea Ross-Greene. They provided excellent harmonies and counterpoints before being asked to share center stage with Mundy on on a couple of Nyro covers: an a cappella Shirelles’ song, “I Met Him on a Sunday” (Shirley Owens/Addie Harris/Doris Coley/Beverly Lee), with each singing a few solo lines; then, forming a perfect blendship before shifting into “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle” (Teddy Randazzo/Bobby Weinstein/Lou Stallman).
The show also had lighter moments, particularly a breathy version of “Sexy Mama” (Harry Ray/Joe Robinson/Al Goodman), in which Mundy sweetly cooed the “love explosion” described in the song’s lyrics to bass player Jonathan Richards, then to cajon-playing John Gannon, then to Mandracchia and finally to Kalling. Another amusing highlight was “The Cat Song,” during which Mundy’s husband, Jim Bruce, came out in a black, one-piece cat outfit, complete with black bow tie, cat ears and whiskers, and perched on a stool while his wife scratched his outstretched neck as she sang — at the end of which he exited through the house, purring at some audience members and hissing at others.
The show was tight, with effective patter written by Bruce and producer Hillary Rollins that was informative and to the point and took the audience smoothly from one song and event in Nyro’s life to the next.
Late in the show, Mundy offered a smooth, relaxed take on “Stoned Soul Picnic,” combined with a bluesy, drawn-out “And When I Die” that morphed into a gospel-like up-tempo before she took it back to a power ballad. After letting each musician and backup singer take an individual bow and exit, Mundy closed out the evening with thanks to Nyro for letting her play in her playground, singing “Serious Playground” (with Kalling on keyboard)—a rangy song that played to all of Mundy’s considerable strengths.