Entertainment » Music

Angels Move Beyond the Great American Songbook

by John Amodeo
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Jan 8, 2009

The conversation goes like this: "What was our lesbian song? Bosom Buddies?" "No, Honey Bun." "No, no. In the lyrics, you are talking about Alice B. Toklas, so yes, it's Bosom Buddies."

This isn't a conversation between Lea Delaria and Clay Aiken backstage at some New York benefit. This is the members of the Boston area cabaret group, The Follen Angels, speaking with EDGE during one of their rehearsals for their upcoming show "All That Jazz: Broadway's Best!" at Scullers Jazz Club on January 13.

The Follen Angels consist of core performers, Hildy Grossman (Vocalist), Rieko Tanaka (Pianist), and Ken Dantzig (Drummer), though others members have come and gone, such as vocalists Jeanne LaForgia, and Grossman's daughter, Micaela. They have been championing the music of the Great American Songbook with such shows as "Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Friends" which they've performed at Scullers Jazz Club, and Worcester's Mechanics Hall, which was simulcast on WICN public radio. They've been featured on Jordan Rich's show on WBZ radio, and Ron Della Chiesa's "Jazz Songbook" program on WGBH public radio. Kathy Uek of Metrowest Daily News once remarked, "The Angels of Jazz have the audience's feet tappin' and fingers snappin'."

But don't pigeonhole these Angels. "We are beyond the American Songbook," proclaims Angels founder, Grossman. This is very true. In fact, when Grossman first formed the Follen Angels, their repertoire had a decided focus on the German and French origins of cabaret from the late 19th c, and early 20th c. She performed pieces in French, German, and Russian. Think Piaf and Dietrich. American Songbook, this wasn't.

But over the years, the group evolved, and so did its repertoire. First came Tanaka, who was born in Japan, and classically trained in Japan and the US. Her move to the US was transformative, as she discovered and fell in love with songs of George & Ira Gershwin. "The lyrics and melodies are unique and timeless," gushes Tanaka. "Playing Gershwin makes me feel I was born in the wrong decade. My teenage years are the 80s, the dark ages of music!" She brought this American Songbook sensibility to the Follen Angels, but often with a jazz flair, as jazz was another of her loves.

Another era of the Angels' evolution happened when LaForgia joined the troop. "At that point, the members of the Angels were from Germany, Japan, and Russia," begins Grossman. "I'm from Jersey!" adds LaForgia with mock cheer. Though this lyric soprano was trained in classical opera, she always harbored a love for Broadway and contemporary cabaret music. While living in NY, she studied three times a week with noted cabaret and musical theater composer, Craig Carnelia ("Sweet Smell of Success," "Is There Life After High School?," "Working").

"Jeanne brought the Broadway repertoire, and we started doing tributes to entertainers, such as Judy Garland, 'Our Kind Of Guys, Sinatra, Yves Montand, Chevalier'," notes Tanaka, adding that they blended the old with the new with shows like "Piaf, Dietrich, and Judy. "Believe it or not, these women shared a lot in common," LaForgia remarks, "For one,we believe they each had relationships with women."

LaForgia performed 20 shows with The Follen Angels, before leaving for other life pursuits, but she will be returning to the fold for this upcoming show, along with second guest artist, Boston musical theater and cabaret performer, Brian De Lorenzo.

"When we were brainstorming for this show, and came up with a Broadway focus, Hildy immediately said, 'We should call Jeanne and Brian,'" Tanaka recounts. Grossman elaborates, "I love both Brian and Jeanne, not just as people, but I respect their work." Tenaka also heard De Lorenzo sing at a Boston Association of Cabaret Artists (BACA) event, and became an instant fan. "He was fabulous!" she adds. While Grossman and the guest artists will be singing solos, the program will mix it up with duets and group numbers.

Grossman dispels the notion that Broadway fare is overplayed. "If it's been done forever, it's because it continues to be loved, and people want to hear it," she reasons, adding "In this show, there are some well known songs that people will love hearing again, some with spectacular melodies, there are songs that have terrific drama, and then there are songs which haven't been heard much at all, which Brian has brought to the show, which are beautiful."

There wasn't consensus on the use of unfamiliar material, at first. De Lorenzo has always been fascinated with wonderful songs that were either cut from successful musicals, or that come from flop musicals. He channeled this interest into his first cabaret show, Found Treasures, which was also made into his debut CD, "Found Treasures." During an early rehearsal, Grossman asked De Lorenzo, "Shouldn't you do at least one or two songs that people know?" But De Lorenzo stood his ground. "And we are so glad he did," chimes LaForgia. De Lorenzo remains confident, explaining, "My audience is going to be more interested in the newer stuff as well as material they've heard me sing before, and even look forward to, but the Follen Angels audience will be hearing a lot of familiar material, and might also welcome some new stuff." Grossman agrees, quipping for the Edge readers, "We have a very sophisticated audience, all gay!"

With such a large body of work to select from, how does one narrow it down? "We each chose songs that we absolutely loved." Grossman explains, "It was no more systematic than that," Grossman looks forward to doing her "Suddenly, Seymour" duet ("Little Shop of Horrors") with De Lorenzo. And though LaForgia first brought "I Have Dreamed" ("The King and I") to the show, after hearing LaForgia sing, De Lorenzo suggested that they do the song as a duet. De Lorenzo adds, "I love the three of us doing 'Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy' (the Andrew Sisters standard from the Abbott and Costello film, 'Buck Privates'). We sound great, and it's wicked fun."

While songs from "Gypsy," "Mame," "Damn Yankees," and "South Pacific" will pepper the show, the Angels promise some surprises. "I'm doing two songs that will be surprising," De Lorenzo interjects, "They're comic!" Characteristically finishing his sentence, Grossman declares mischievously, "We have great chemistry, and when you have great chemistry, you never know what will happen."

The Follen Angels perform "All That Jazz: Broadway's Best!" On Tuesday, January 13, 8pm. at Scullers Jazz Club, Double Tree Guest Suites Hotel, 400 Soldiers Field Road, Boston, MA. Tickets: $23. For reservations, call 617.562.4111, or order online at www.scullersjazz.com, or www.ticketweb.com.

John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and Theatermania.com, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.


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