Departing from its usual fare of drama and comedy, Two River Theater Company brings two-time Grammy Award nominee Maureen McGovern to its Red Bank stage with her one-woman performance show, Carry It On, which purports to tell the story of her life using the music of such artists as Carole King, James Taylor and the Beatles, among others.
Still trim at age 62—with a creamy complexion and a luxuriant head of red hair—McGovern has retained her marvelous voice and exudes a natural charm that conveys intimacy with her audience. But as a dramatic vehicle, Carry It On falls somewhat short.
I can hear you saying, "But this isn't a play," and you're right. But McGovern and TRTC are selling it as the story of a creative life, and knowing about the vicissitudes of the entertainment business, I would have expected more dramatic tension and a greater expression of the conflicts she encountered along the way.
The problem, as I have said, is not with McGovern's voice. For one thing, with only three big hits, two of them Oscar-winners and the other the theme of the immensely popular film, Superman, she lacks a long trail of her own recordings to tell her story. Thus, McGovern relies on rock and roll and folky music ("When I'm 64," "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" among others) that don't really fit a voice more suited to smoky jazz and the Great American Songbook. Her soulful rendition of Cassie's song, "Let Me Dance for You," from A Chorus Line, however, marvelously captures the frustration of an artist whose career has hit a dead end, as McGovern's did in the seventies. And she has great fun warbling a song concocted of nonsense syllables from doo-wop music of the fifties, as well as Tom Lehrer's snarkily satiric "Vatican Rag."
However, the narrative arc of Carry It On is bounces back and forth over a 50 year period, with forays in her parents' pasts, omitting details of the stage career (except for brief mentions) she launched in 1981 and her appearance as a singing nun in the wildly wacky flick Airplane with Leslie Nielsen. Other than brief mentions, we don't know what it was like to appear in The Pirates of Penzance (replacing Linda Ronstadt as Mabel), the Tony Award-winning Nine (as Raul Julia's wife Luisa Contini), and appearances in regional theater productions of Broadway hit productions (playing both Sarah and Adelaide in Guys and Dolls—although not at the same time). What were the challenges of moving from the recording studio to the stage? How did she overcome them? We do get to hear music connected with the Civil Rights marches (the title song references the era) and the AIDs epidemic, but McGovern doesn't really connect herself physically to either; context is fine, but what was her personal involvement and how was she affected?
Dramatic tension is provided by the framing device of an MRI McGovern underwent when one side of her body became numb and the worst was suspected. It’s a good way to let her travel back in time. And the loss of her voice while singing the role of Polly Peachum in a 1989 production of The Three Penny Opera (starring Sting) would scare the you know what off any artist (remember what happened to Julie Andrews), and McGovern communicates the terror of that dilemma very well. Photographic projections on the stage's back wall act as "scenery," and Jeffrey Harris's arrangements and accompaniment provide excellent musical support.
In 1997 I interviewed Maureen McGovern (via long-distance telephone) prior to her appearance at the Community Theatre in Morristown where she sang Christmas songs, songs paying homage to great movie music and songs from The Great American Songbook. Her warmth and love of music came through the telephone loud and clear across the miles; she hasn't lost any of that since then. She told me then that, afraid of the one-hit stigma, she “decided to find out what was unique about me. I decided to stretch my limits. Once I realized I could say what I really wanted to say, I brought out the best in me. I came to terms with the kind of music I wanted to express: music about being a contemporary woman." At the end of Carry It On, I was still hungry to learn more about this versatile chanteuse's creative life.
With a crystalline coloratura soprano that can accompany symphony orchestras; a jazzy, warm pop register; and a multi-octave range, Maureen McGovern is a singer's singer. Unfortunately, much of the music she's chosen for Carry It On doesn't really do her voice justice.
All this doesn't mean that you won't enjoy Carry It On at Two River Theater. A warm feeling permeated the house on Easter Sunday, with many gray heads nodding in time to the familiar doo-wop beat and catching her references to Howdy Doody and Buffy Ste. Marie (not Buffy the Vampire Slayer of modern television fame). And yes, she does sing "The Morning After" from The Poseidon Adventure, so you won't be disappointed.
Carry It On will be performed at the Two River Theater, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, through Sunday, April 22. For information and tickets, call 732.345.1400 or online at www.trtc.org.
Photos of Maureen McGovern courtesy of Ken Huth, huthphoto.com.