By Don Heckman
Peter Marshall. You remember him. If you don’t, your parents do. His five Emmy awards as the host of Hollywood Squares were the product of spending a lot of time on the television screens of millions of American homes in the ’60s and ’70s.
But onstage at Vitello’s? A more unlikely place, to be sure. But there he was Tuesday night, facing a packed house, jazz club audience, accompanied by a pair of lovely, talented jazz singers — Carol Welsman and Calabria Foti – performing a show of his own making, “And Then She Wrote.”
This time out, he’s come up with a fascinating concept, based on the too-little known fact that a substantial portion of songs in the Great American Songbook were written by women. And Marshall and his companions made their point early with the American classic, “Shine on Harvest Moon,” written in 1908 with lyrics by Nora Bayes.
For the next hour and a half, the songs never stopped coming. From names well-known and lesser-known — Ann Ronnell, Ruth Lowe, Dorothy Fields, Betty Comden, Carolyn Leigh, Peggy Lee, Marilyn Bergman and many, many more. Their presentation was a delight. Marshall’s amiable baritone voice was especially appealing in songs such as “I’m In the Mood For Love,” “You Always Hurt the One You Love,” “Young At Heart” and “Just In Time.”
It wasn’t surprising, of course, that he was also a grand host, cracking jokes that were in the show’s script and frequently adding equally whimsical spontaneous lines. His singing was equally on target, warm and comfy in the ballads, lightly swinging in the up tempo numbers.
There was, however, a certain irony – given the subject matter of the show – that many of its high points of the evening were stolen by Welsman and Foti. Their rendering of Edith Piaf’s “La Via En Rose,” with Welsman singing and playing the piano, and Foti providing gorgeous violin counter- lines, was stunningly emotional. So, too, was “Killing Time,” the last song written by Leigh, whose first successful song was “The Best Is Yet To Come.” Granted the irony of the connection between the two songs, Welsman’s performance of the latter was magical, perfectly capturing the rich layers of feeling in the haiku-like lyrics.
Foti, too, had one exquisite musical moment after another, embracing songs such as “Willow Weep For Me,” “Can’t We Be Friends” and “”How Little We Know” with her warm, dark voice and intimate phrasing.
Mashall reported that some videotaping of the performance had been done, and that plans were in the works for more performances. Not a bad idea – with a few adjustments. Somewhat larger scale backing than that provided by the nonetheless fine work of pianist John Rodby and bassist Paul Morin would make a difference. So, too, would some enhancements of the staging and the book part of the show. Add to that a more thorough overview of the topic, including items from the gifted distaff songwriters active from, say, the ’60s into the present.
But no complaints about the music that’s already in the show, with its enlightened view of the lesser known, gender segregated but magnificently talented women who wrote some of the great songs in the soundtrack of American life.