Songs to Amuse, Steamer No. 10 Theatre, Dec. 31
Shawn Stone | Monday, January 2 2017
Keyboardist Malcolm Kogut and singer Byron Nilsson (aka B.A. Nilsson in these pages) brought their cabaret act Songs to Amuse to the stage at Steamer No. 10 Theatre on New Year’s Eve, where a happy crowd heartily laughed at a two-hour (including intermission) program of (mostly) 20th-century songs intended to, as advertised, amuse.
They began with “Lydia the Tattooed Lady,” which was originally introduced in a 1939 movie by Groucho Marx, and widely known now thanks to Kermit the Frog’s version. It’s a pun-filled, slightly salacious chronicle of one woman’s varied and outlandish body art, and as an opener, a pretty good indication of what was to come. Written by Harburg and Arlen around the same time they were composing the songs for The Wizard of Oz, Nilsson also told the story of–and sang–a lyric excised by a studio exec out of concern that it would “date” the number. The line? “When she sits, she sits on Hitler.”
What was the thing with everyone underestimating Hitler’s long-term prospects?
And that was the show: Smart, varied musical approaches by Kogut, fine singing and snappy patter by Nilsson. There were songs by Noel Coward and Tom Lehrer (the latter allowing Kogut to add a little synthesized Irish fiddle); songs made famous by the likes of Al Jolson (“Why Do They All Take The Night Boat to Albany”) and Blossom Dearie (Dave Frishberg’s “My Attorney Bernie”); a trio of thoroughly delightful numbers written by the Brit duo Flanders and Swann; and many more.
Nilsson even tossed out a couple of lines from DeSylva, Brown and Henderson’s “Turn On the Heat,” one of the more demented songs from that most demented year of Hollywood musicals, 1929.
Particularly enjoyable was the woe-filled (as opposed to woeful) temperance ballad, “Father’s a Drunkard and Mother Is Dead.” This horrible tale of 19th-century death and abandonment provided the opportunity for a jaunty sing-along. The duo helpfully included the lyrics to the refrain on the back of the program: “Mother, oh! Why did you leave me alone/With no one to love me, no friends and no home?/Dark is the night, and the storm rages wild/God pity Bessie, the Drunkard’s lone child!”
While there was no happy ending for “Bessie,” we in the audience had a fine time singing about her misery.
As the second half of the program wound down, the duo saved something special for the end: the 1937 labor ballad, “Capitalistic Boss.” This rich bastard’s lament gave Nilsson a chance to tear into a life of greed, exploitation, indolence, political violence and selfishness with an angry glee, as the narrator continually returned to one line of defense: “Something is wrong with my brain.”
The evening ended with everyone joining in on “Auld Lang Syne.” Kogut and Nilsson sent us out into the cold with warmer spirits than when we arrived, and ready to enjoy whatever revelry the last three hours of 2016 had in store.