Barbara Brussell

The New York Observer, November 3, 2004 ON THE TOWN WITH...
by Rex Reed

The Fair Lady Sings

Every Saturday night in November, Barbara Brussell, the wittiest of girl singers, is interpreting the songs of Alan Jay Lerner, the most urbane and literate of lyricists, with the dreamy support of Tedd Firth, one of New Yorkís most sensitive pianists. This treasure of good fortune is happening at Dannyís Skylight Room on West 46th Street, in the middle of Restaurant Row. Youíd be a fool to miss it.

Iíd like to share with you a Readerís Digest condensed version of what she does that is so special, but this relative newcomer to the first ranks of cabaret royalty wears so many hats that I know when Iím licked. Behind that sunny, blond California Doris Day veneer hides the violent mayhem of Betty Hutton. Thatís why investing so much energy and sincerity into the colossal repertoire of the equally eclectic Alan Jay Lerner really pays off. He wrote as many different kinds of songs as she has moods, voices and mannerisms. The harvest from such a daunting assembly of styles is bountiful.

Playing around with tempos, buttering love songs with a crusty sob in the throat, sucking the sap out of comedy material like nectar from a honeycomb, Ms. Brussell can fulfill every fantasy with a snap of her fingers. Tackling songs previously claimed by Louis Jourdan, Fred Astaire, Robert Goulet and Maurice Chevalier, she stamps them with a branding iron of her own authentic invention. And sheís such a fine actress that she can shine a flashlight on the subtext of a Lerner lyric in fresh ways that make you feel like youíre hearing it for the first time. Classics from an 18-year collaboration with Frederic Loewe that produced theatrical history are inevitable, but believe it when I tell you they never heard an "Almost Like Being in Love" like this in Brigadoon. The way she approximates the talk-sing style of Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady or makes "If Ever I Would Leave You" from Camelot tremble and shimmer with passion, makes me wonder why so many women always stick to the obvious Julie Andrews songs in both shows. The menís songs were much better.

Exploring Lernerís partnerships with other songwriters, she unmasks luscious gems by Burton Lane, Charles Strouse and Kurt Weill. From the hilarious "Economics" from an early failure called Love Life to Jane Powellís evergreen "Too Late Now" from the MGM musical Royal Wedding, Ms. Brussell gives every tune a unique spin, distilling the essence of lifeís changing seasons. She is real, she is tender, she is wacky. And the well-researched biographical material that links the musical themes is cogent, pithy and informational, reminding us that Mr. Lerner had one eye and was just over five foot six, yet still managed to write some of the greatest love songs of all time and marry eight wives. Iíve never heard the conversational chatter in a cabaret act inserted so zanily into patter that I can only describe it as Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness fused with bump-and-grind show-business sequins.

The highlight of the show is the hauntingly beautiful Lerner-Strouse ballad "Thereís Always One You Canít Forget" from the one-night misfortune Dance a Little Closer. It reminds me once again that great songs often come from flop musicals. Ms. Brussell and her tastefully chosen, sometimes obscure but always memorable songs make me wonder out loud: Where have they been all my life?

(You may reach Rex Reed via email at: rreed@observer.com.)