Performer: Billy Stritch
In town for a series of concerts at the Crazy Coqs with Broadway actress Lilias White, Billy Stritch presents a late-night hour of his own.
While Stritch has led an interesting career – apologetically name dropping Liza Minnelli, with whom he worked for over 20 years – the evening is a celebration not of Stritch and his career, but of the writers of the Great American Songbook.
Indeed, the Minnelli namedrop occurs only as an introduction to how Stritch met Cy Coleman, writer with Carolyn Leigh of standard The Best is Yet to Come and the much less well known Let Me Down Easy.
Much of the inter-song talk is, as one would expect, of the effect the pandemic lockdowns have had on Stritch as a performer. A newcomer to the world of streaming, his weekly “Billy’s Place” YouTube series encouraged him to explore more songs that weren’t normally in his repertoire. A CD release followed (Stritch joking that as well as having the CDs on sale after the show, he’ll have to also sell CD players).
The lasting effect of that work has been for Stritch to include more obscure numbers such as Planes by Peter Allen (which, although dating to 1976, feels more modern than the majority of his set list) alongside classics such as Hoagy Carmichael’s Skylark.
Any celebration of American songwriting must include some Sondheim, and Stritch dutifully complies with a medley of I’ve Got You to Lean On and Old Friend. Mercifully, Stritch has no time for lamenting the composer’s passing, maybe because so many of the other songwriters featured are also deceased. Instead, he focuses on the songs and wringing as much emotional content out of them as a twinkle-eyed pianist can muster.
Stritch’s only onstage guest is Debbie Wileman, a Londoner whose “Song a Day” pandemic videos impressed Stritch so much that the pair collaborated remotely, only meeting face to face this week. Their duet of Since You Left New York is sweet, but it is impressionist Wileman’s solo version of I Could Go On Singing, performed as by Judy Garland, that impresses the most in her brief time on stage.
While not the final song set in the evening, it is perhaps a medley of numbers from Singin’ in the Rain which sums up Stritch’s joyous approach to the genre. Perhaps the original jukebox musical, the film was devised by MGM producer Arthur Freed as a showcase of songs he had written in the preceding decades with Nacio Herb Brown. As Stritch flits from song to song he calls out the films in which they originally appeared, inviting the audience to revel in their heritage as much as they enjoy them in their more famous context.
Indeed, enjoyment is the order of the day. For that same Singin’ in the Rain medley, he encourages the audience to sing along – but “only if you’re on key,” he warns.
It’s an admonishment that many joining in freely ignore, but nobody much cares. The enjoyment and love Stritch has for his songs are obvious and infectious.
Reviewed on 14 April 2022