A syncopated stroll down memory lane
Camelot Theatre’s “Spotlight on Johnny Mercer” will have you tapping your toes, nodding along dreamily or — maybe — singing along with the always happily familiar music onstage.
Lyricist Mercer wrote the lyrics to more than 1,500 songs over his five-decade career and composed the music for many of them. Director Presila Quinby and script writer Charles Cherry selected 26 of them from the best-known, the most artful and, in a couple of cases, the most obscure.
Three singers — Laura Derocher, Jade Chavis Watt and David King-Gabriel — with distinct vocal styles and range, cover the Mercer songbook. Quinby and Cherry added the nice touch of sharing narration duties, tying the songs to key moments in Mercer’s life and career, including four Academy Awards and the founding of Capitol Records — the first major record label on the West Coast — and a long and unhappy love affair with Judy Garland.
Derocher is a seasoned vocalist who brings polished storytelling skills to her performance of songs such as “Lazy Bones” and “Autumn Leaves.” Chavis Watt provides the jazzy-bluesy element so prominent in songs such as “Blues in the Night,” “Come Rain or Come Shine” and the little-known and sassy “Legalize My Name.”
And while King-Gabriel doesn’t have the vocal chops of Derocher or Chavis Watt, he has a fine crooner’s voice that suits Mercer’s lyrics in “Satin Doll” and “I Remember You.”
King-Gabriel embellishes his crooner style with the broad gestures and mugging of a Las Vegas lounge act — at one point he mugged so enthusiastically that he forgot the lyrics to a song. King-Gabriel is a skilled actor — he did a superb job as Valjean in Camelot’s production of “Les Miserables” earlier this season — so his exaggerated acting seemed even more out of place here.
The onstage band, all veteran Rogue Valley resident musicians, is faultless. The musical arrangements for “Spotlight on Johnny Mercer” are by bass clarinetist Michael Vannice with musical direction by keyboardist Brent Olstad. They nail Mercer’s swinging yet lyric style perfectly. They are joined by Randy Magallanes on tenor sax, clarinet and flute; Randy Scherer on trumpet and flugelhorn; Steve Fain on bass; and Steve Sutfin on percussion.
Scenic designer Roy Von Rains, Jr. provided a simple set in tones of blue and black, echoed in the cast’s costumes. Brian O’Connor designed the accompanying video projections of Mercer and his musical colleagues.
It’s fun discovering — or rediscovering — Johnny Mercer’s versatility. Mercer wrote the music as well as the lyrics to standards such as “Dream” and “Something’s Gotta Give.” He gave us unforgettable lyrics to “Moon River,” “Days of Wine and Roses” and “Laura.” He wrote English lyrics to French songs such as “Once Upon A Summertime,” “Autumn Leaves” and “When the World Was Young” that preserve their mood without resorting to literal translation. Mercer even wrote lyrics for Barry Manilow, who used them in “When October Goes,” written after Mercer’s death.
It can be argued that there are other Mercer songs that could have been included, such as “I Wanna Be Around” or “One More for My Baby” that would also suit the ups and downs of Mercer’s career and personal life, or “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe,” which is just plain fun.
But the songs that are featured — and the superbly skilled musicians presenting them — make for a truly delightful evening.
“Spotlight on Johnny Mercer” plays at Camelot through Oct. 5. There’s still time to treat yourself to a syncopated stroll down memory lane. For details, see www.camelottheatre.org or call 541-535-5250.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at email@example.com.