Elvira Tortora: The Bookmaker’s Daughter

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Elvira Tortora

The Bookmaker’s Daughter

Don’t Tell Mama, NYC, February 1, 2024

Reviewed by Bart Greenberg

Elvira Tortora
Photo: Sub/Urban Photography


It is said that to create a fine musical play one must either tell a familiar story in an unusual way or tell an unusual story in a familiar way. Elvira Tortora has chosen the latter way to tell the tale of her life in a show that was certainly far more a theater piece than a traditional cabaret presentation. What a saga it was; it described her childhood in Brooklyn as the beloved daughter of a bookmaker (or in common parlance a “bookie”). From a distance, it was a colorful time, which included her having to deliver brightly wrapped “birthday” packages filled with cash to gentlemen who weren’t having a party. Later on, there was a lavish wedding party with a Jewish groom and “family, friends and wise guys in yarmulkas.” The marriage failed, and much later a second groom appeared as promised by a surprising channeler for much happier results. This was a compelling life story indeed.

The musical side of the evening was under the control of expert music director Gregory Toroian, and the entire program was directed by Lina Koutrakos, who used her magic to make everything work. The room was packed—a bit surprising given that this was the show’s sixth, but understandable in view of its quality. Tortora has a wonderful voice and an expressive ability with lyrics. The songs were well chosen to fit the story without including extraneous material. There was a mix of Broadway tunes and popular songs of the day, including “Blue Velvet” as a tribute to her mother’s beauty, and “My Love, Forgive Me,” a solemn ballad that was a surprising choice to open a show. Many of the songs were gently slid into, with dialogue that led into lyrics, such as with “One of the Great Ones” (Glenn Slater/Alan Mencken) and “Luck Be a Lady” (Frank Loesser). It was a pleasure to hear some obscure tunes, such as “I’m All I’ve Got” (Ronny Graham/Milton Schafer, from Bravo Giovanni) and “Raining” (Lynn Ahrens/Stephen Flaherty from Rocky, The Musical), that only serious cast album collectors would recognize.

Of course, some songs by Stephen Sondheim were inevitable, used to highlight her feelings about her second marriage. The excellent story arc began with “With So Little to Be Sure Of” and moved into a very gentle “Something’s Coming” (music by Leonard Bernstein) when her future was foretold by a medium. It climaxed when her uncertainly about a second marriage was stated  in the emotional highlight of the evening, “Marry Me a Little”—a golden moment indeed. A witty script, well-chosen and beautifully performed songs, and a moving story that no one but Tortora could tell all made for an evening of golden moments.

Bart Greenberg

Bart Greenberg first discovered cabaret a few weeks after arriving in New York City by seeing Julie Wilson and William Roy performing Stephen Sondheim and Cole Porter outdoors at Rockefeller Center. It was instant love for both Ms. Wilson and the art form. Some years later, he was given the opportunity to create his own series of cabaret shows while working at Tower Records. "Any Wednesday" was born, a weekly half-hour performance by a singer promoting a new CD release. Ann Hampton Callaway launched the series. When Tower shut down, Bart was lucky to move the program across the street to Barnes & Noble, where it thrived under the generous support of the company. The series received both The MAC Board of Directors Award and The Bistro Award. Some of the performers who took part in "Any Wednesday" include Barbara Fasano and Eric Comstock, Tony Desare, Andrea Marcovicci, Carole Bufford, the Karens, Akers, Mason and Oberlin, and Julie Wilson. Privately, Greenberg is happily married to writer/photographer Mark Wallis, who as a performance artist in his native England gathered a major following as "I Am Cereal Killer."