By Elaine Liner
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Not so the tunes of Friedman, which are written--if one chooses to be charitable--with a certain deliberate blandness so that stylists like LaMott or Midler in her bathhouse days and stage-marquee names such as Betty Buckley and Patti Lupone can deliver the songs with singer placed squarely in the foreground. Lyrics and melodies like Friedman's work best when they serve as mere cues for a beloved diva to not so much sing as give a vocal performance--to act with her lungs and chords. For As Long As I Can Sing, Jones has assembled six performers--Julie Johnson, Steve Barcus, Amy Stevenson, Dan Carne and Dara Whitehead, plus musical director-pianist Mark Mullino--who are technically proficient but neither quirky nor bravura. There is some dazzle on display here--Whitehead has an upper register that's pure and shimmering as a wind chime; Johnson struts with a cowgirl earthiness (that kicks in too late, unfortunately)--but most of the time, everyone strikes the same pose: arms spread, hands open, head tilted heavenward, eyes blurry beacons of sincerity as they draw out the notes. As the Sunday matinee progressed, "draw out" became a descriptive phrase--the successive songs sounded so much alike, it seemed like one very cheesy ballad was being reprised relentlessly for the purpose of wearing down captors during a tense standoff.
Friedman's love songs don't bear close scrutiny. The titles--"You're Already There," "I'll Be Here With You," "Listen to My Heart," "Let Me Be the Music," "I Can Hold You"--are perfect précis of their interchangeable contents: Each is about nothing more than what it's called. One emblematic number, "Only My Pillow Knows" (co-written with Kathie Lee Gifford), reflects the thoughtlessness with which these tunes were written--Friedman and Gifford squeezed images of rivers, sparrows, willows and pillows into one chorus. Among such unwieldy compositions, there's a sprinkling of "character" songs here, most of them assumed by the game Amy Stevenson. Since I've never been confused with an anorexic, I must confess a bias against the way Steven Jones uses Stevenson, a big woman. She's rarely allowed to rise above lyrics that are asexual ("My Simple Christmas Wish," "I'm Not My Mother") or that remind ticket buyers of her weight ("If I Were Pretty," "He Comes Home Tired"). The latter, at least, allows her to appreciate a husband who appreciates her despite her "tight dress." But Stevenson's sole path through the meadows of love with "He Comes Home Tired" is trampled by Steve Barcus romping through a comical "If You Love Me Please Don't Feed Me," a follow-up song from the husband's viewpoint. Fellow cast member Dara Whitehead is lovely but just a flower stalk of a girl; why doesn't Friedman pen tunes like "I Need Carbs" for singers of her size?
Personal agendas aside, As Long As I Can Sing is way too much undifferentiated yearning and conventional comic "wisdom" to be staged inside an echo-filled hall like Irving Arts Center's Dupree Theater. Much as I challenge the featured songwriter's craftsmanship, I just don't think Lyric Stage has done him right. The ingredients essential to making Friedman's oeuvre digestible--small space, cigarette smoke, bitter banter between a drag queen and her pianist, and lots of alcohol--have been cruelly denied us.
As Long As I Can Sing runs through May 5 in the Irving Arts Centerís Dupree Theater, 3333 N. MacArthur Blvd, Irving. Call (972) 252-2787.