Stephanie Byer: Ruth Etting Reflects

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Stephanie Byer

Ruth Etting Reflects

Laurie Beechman Theatre, NYC, April 7, 2024

Reviewed by Bart Greenberg

Stephanie Byer

Ruth Etting was a major musical star of the 1920s and ‘30s on Broadway, in cabarets and clubs, and to a lesser extent in films. Eventually, she walked away from her first nightmarish marriage and her career to happily disappear into anonymity until Love Me or Leave Me, her highly laundered film bio starring Doris Day, came out in 1955. Stephanie Byer has chosen to explore the original story using extensive quotes from Etting and a generous sampling of her songs. Under the excellent but lightest-of-touches direction by Eric Michael Gillett and with major support from music director/pianist Michael Lavine, Byer created and presented a charming show.

The songs she chose were an excellent mix of the expected, “Love Me or Leave Me” (Walter Donaldson/Gus Kahn) and “Ten Cents a Dance” (Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart, and the less expected “There’ll Be Some Changes Made” (Benton Overstreet/Billy Higgins), “You’d Be Surprised” (Irving Berlin), the very-much-forgotten “Dew-Dew-Dewey Day” (Al Sherman/Howard Johnson & Charles Tobias), and “Funny Dear What Love Can Do” (written by Etting). Each number added to the story being told and covered both the personal and the professional arc of the first part of Etting’s life. This was smart and effective cabaret.

Byer has a charming and quirky personality. Early in the evening, she seemed to be suffering from an attack of nerves; she was greatly assisted by Lavine, who gently guided her with great care. As the show progressed, she clearly gained confidence, and she relaxed into her material. This was especially apparent when she settled onto a stool to offer three songs that charted Etting’s disastrous marriage to a sadistic gangster: “After You’ve Gone” (Turner Layton/Henry Creamer), “If I Could Be with You (One Hour Tonight)” (James P. Johnson/Creamer), and “Mean to Me” (Fred E. Ahlert/Roy Turk).

The biggest problem with this show was the singer’s uncertain voice, especially during the first part. It was never unpleasant to hear, and Byer was always secure in her lyrics, but it might have been better if she had shared the vocal duties with a singer who had a stronger voice. There was a great deal to enjoy in this show, but strengthening the vocal element would have raised it to a new level.

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."