Gould and Lewis Shine at South of Broadway
THE WORLD PREMIERE of an original theater piece took place Saturday evening at South of Broadway to a wildly enthusiastic full house, and for all the best reasons.
“The Piano Man and the Diva” combined musical comedy, pop, and opera—yes, opera—performed by two seasoned pros who strutted their stuff for a full two hours of pure delight. Both have had highly successful careers on stages from New York to England to South America, and it showed.
Mary Gould, Founder and Producer of the South of Broadway Theatre Company, collaborated with her longtime “piano man” William R. (Bill) Lewis to romp through a program that promised to “trash your last reservations about ‘classical’ musicians.” They delivered that and so much more—with panache, grace, and a panoply of skill sets to die for. Gould and Lewis have been working together since they met in NYC in 1983. This show pays homage to their long friendship, reprising moments both touching and uproarious, using their shared experiences as fodder for a concert loosely divided into four sections: children’s songs, classical music, cabaret, and Love.
The moment Lewis approached the grand piano in white tie and tails and launched into Irving Berlin’s “I Love a Piano,” displaying a vibrant, warm tenor baritone and a complete mastery of the keyboard, we knew we were in for a very special time. His energetic performance also revealed a sparkling personality, as he flew through his own arrangement of a bunch of tunes from ragtime to swing to Broadway, a medley that showcased his career as a pianist, accompanist, musical director, and conductor.
Enter the Diva, bedecked in miles of satin and feathers, whose rendition of “This Place is Mine” from “Phantom of the Opera” could not have been truer: Gould does own this place, including, as she reminds us in song, the chandelier above her head. Her strong, soaring soprano becomes a scrabbly chest tone in a New York minute, as she morphs from opera star to ribald musical comedy actress, all in the same number. Gould holds a clear, pure high E flat forever—which ends just as she knocks Lewis off the piano bench.
A large part of the charm of this production is in that very juxtaposition of high drama and low-down shtick: serious art with tongue in cheek, dramatic moments interspersed with dialogue and action sure to induce belly laughs.
Another Berlin composition describing Aesop’s fables Lewis did “straight,” and he evidenced a perfect French accent (well, duh, he’s a voice coach, too) in one of many songs Rossini wrote for kids. Gould then treated us to songs she learned as a child in Brazil where she and her family lived until she was 18. Appearing now in a smart black velvet suit after the obligatory costume change, Gould first spat out about 834 syllables to music that lasted perhaps a minute; she then rendered an especially lovely lullaby in dulcet tones.
An extra added attraction was Esther Rose Williams, worked into the show as the Diva’s dresser, who opened the classical portion of this dynamic production. Williams negotiated two Mozart arias with a big, full-bodied mezzo-soprano that was more than equal to the task, with Lewis joining for a duet from “Le Nozze di Figaro.” She proved her comedic acting abilities as well as she, too, hit the boards at the end of her impressive performance.
Continuing the classical mode, art songs and arias by composers from Ponce to Villa-Lobos gave Gould and Lewis the chance to display their considerable artistry. There’s a healthy vibrato in Gould’s voice, especially in her upper range, in fact perfectly suited to these examples of a lighter operatic genre. Closing the first half with Massenet‘s difficult, highly emotional “Pleurez! Plearez Mes Yeux,” “Miss Mary,” as Lewis addressed her, insisted the aria was written for a much bigger voice. (In that intimate space, I beg to disagree.) She had never before performed it in public. Moved by Gould’s searing performance, I was not entirely sure whether Gould was in character or was moved to near-tears herself—maybe both.
Poulenc’s “Les Chemins de L’amour” is the classic cabaret torch song, and Gould knocked it out in a black outfit with a dramatic shoulder drape, sitting next to Lewis, now in a frock coat and jazzy vest, at the piano. No one, not even Gould, can argue that her voice is not particularly well-suited to this style of art—her warm personality, too. Oh, the Gershwin “The Man I Love”! Oh, Lewis’ iconic “Feeling Lazy Hotel” (Newley/Moross/Poulenc)! Learned especially for this production, Gould and Lewis honored her adopted home with a mix of Niles’ “Lass from the Low Country” and the traditional “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.”
Each of the glorious, glamorous costumes was beautifully designed to set the mood of the four sections, but nowhere was this more evident than in the final “Love” as Gould swept out in a floor-length scarlet gown as sparkling as she is, and a matched evening coat. Rodgers and Hart’s “To Keep My Love Alive” (from “A Connecticut Yankee”) described all manner of ways a lady might do away with her serial husbands; this one did, center-stage. A bit of stage business, a black-out, and here was Mary the siren lounging on the piano. The two stars could not have chosen a better finale, “Prima Donna” from Webber’s “Phantom,” for we all knew we had just witnessed two of the best of them.
If you are smart—and fast—you can catch our own Piano Man and Diva Sunday, January 12, at 3:00 PM, with only two more performances subsequently, January 18 at 7:30 PM and next Sunday at 3:00 PM. Don’t even think of carping about driving to Montague Avenue to reach North Charleston’s Olde Village Park Circle: twenty minutes for two hours of unique entertainment and many more hours of remembering.
Learn more at southofbroadway.com.
Poster art by Dela Breyne
photo of Mary Gould by Amy Polston