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December 23, 2011

An engaging visit with Dorothy Fields at Everyman Theatre

Each year at this time, Everyman Theatre takes a nostalgic walk through the Great American Songbook, departing from the company's usual focus to offer a cabaret-type show with a few singers and a single pianist.

Irving Berlin and Johnny Mercer have provided fertile ground for these presentations in recent seasons. Now it's the turn of Dorothy Fields, a name with less recognition, but a great deal of weight in the business.

Because Fields is a bit more obscure, and because she's just such an interesting figure in the history of popular music, Everyman took an extra step this time, creating much more than a song revue.

"On the Sunny Side of the Street: A Tribute to Dorothy Fields," which runs through Jan. 1, has a book written by James Gardiner, a Signature Theatre regular who starred in Everyman's Berlin salute a couple years back. Gardiner has fashioned a very effective vehicle that manages to impart lots of information about a somewhat elusive figure, without turning wordy or gimmicky.

There is much to savor about the life Fields led. She broke into what was very much a man's world in the 1920s and held her ground.

She fashioned clever and colorful words for some of the most successful songs of the past century, including the one that provides the title for this show, not to mention such standards as “I Can't Give You Anything But Love” and “I'm in the Mood for Love.”

What gives the Fields story an extra degree of interest is her longevity. That she wrote lyrics for Jerome Kern and Quincy Jones says a great deal. Few people in this business lasted as long as she did, or produced memorable work in nearly ever decade of her career. To go from "I Feel a Song Coming On" to "Big Spender," with a stop along the way as book-writer for "Annie Get Your Gun," is a pretty cool stretch.

The Everyman production, with musical direction by Howard Breitbart (pictured), wisely ...

whittles down the Fields legacy to about two dozen songs, more than enough to show off what the lyricist could do. (It's a great idea to precede "I Won't Dance" with the original, dreadful lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein.) The selections, more or less chronologically arranged, include plenty of the hits, but also some delectable lesser known items that deserve fresh attention.

The arrangements are generally spot-on, but a mash-up of “Don't Blame Me” and “Make the Man Love Me” doesn't quite work; both of these great ballads lose too much in the process. (A similar treatment of “The Way You Look Tonight” and “I'm In the Mood for Love” comes off more smoothly.)

The production, smoothly directed by Vincent Lancisi, boasts an amiable, capable cast of four, headed by Nancy Dolliver as Dorothy. She is not the strongest vocalist, but she doesn't have to be.

What Dolliver brings to the stage is a vibrant portrayal of the lyricist, so warm and funny that it's easy to believe this is what Fields was like, right down to the accent.

And she sure knows how to extract the gold in a Fields lyric, most notably from a very sly song with music by Arthur Schwartz, "He Had Refinement." And when, near the end of the show, Dolliver delivers "Nobody Does it Like Me," the effect is quite electric, as if it really were Fields' own personal anthem.

Gardiner is, as usual, an engaging presence, though his voice seems to have lost some of its freshness and ease of projection. Katie Nigsch-Fairfax sings brightly.

Delores King Williams (pictured) makes a welcome return to Everyman. She's a remarkable singer, as rich in tone as in interpretive nuance. Her delicious account of "Remind Me" is one of the show's high points.

Breitbart plays with his accustomed enthusiasm (he could drop a glissando or two without harming the arrangements). What he needs is a good piano — a top-notch, 9-foot grand would boost the whole show. Barring that, the small, tired instrument onstage should at least have an open lid, to cut down on the boxy sound.


Posted by Tim Smith at 11:53 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Clef Notes, Drama Queens

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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