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Richard Holbrook: The Untapped Fred Astaire Revisited

Experience Fred Astaire with an incomparable trip down memory lane as the debonair cabaret singer pays tribute to his fascinating life and career.

Richard Holbrook as he appears in “The Untapped Fred Astaire Revisited” (Photo credit: Jefferey Hornstein)

Don’t Tell Mama was packed for the opening of Richard Holbrook’s Untapped Fred Astaire Revisited, a memoir celebrating Astaire’s life cabaret-style. Dressed to the nines, Holbrook charmed the audience the minute he took to the stage and they were mesmerized throughout the performance. He had them on their feet at the end of the show when he announced that he is in good health now after his cancer scare last year. He said, “I’m happy, I’m strong, I never felt better.” He did look happy and strong and he really wowed the crowd.

Accompanied by the Tom Nelson Trio comprised of musical director Nelson on piano, Tom Kirchmer on bass, and Peter Grant on drums, Holbrook sang more than 30 songs made famous by Astaire. Known as the great interpreter of songs, he was sought after by all the great composers of the day which is why they all flocked to Hollywood. Some of the greats include Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, and others. Berlin, who worked with him the most, said of Astaire, “He’s not just a good dancer, he’s a great singer of songs… he has the rhythm and the timing.”

The debonair Holbrook sang his way down memory lane with his enchanting voice and interesting stories about Astaire that he shared in-between songs, many showing a side to the man that is relatively unknown. This is one of the aspects of the show that makes it intriguing and a must-see for those who appreciate the talents of this widely respected artist.

Most remember Fred Astaire for his singing and dancing, and for his movie roles, but there was much more to the man. He was also a very talented musician who played a wide variety of instruments starting with the piano when he was just a boy. The list includes the harp, horn, accordion, bass and drums. Beyond his love for singing and interpreting songs, Astaire wanted more than anything to be a songwriter and, over the years, he accomplished this as well, creating his own songbook.

Astaire was a romantic crooner and the women loved him; even the men admired him. Born as Frederick Austerlitz in Omaha, Nebraska back in1899, he wanted to sing and dance all his life. Holbrook opened with the song,A Shine on Your Shoes and commented that Astaire always had a shine on his shoes. He followed with I Wanna Be a Dancin’ Man which begins with “Gonna leave my footsteps on the sands of time if I never leave a dime”…. which says it all about Astaire’s legacy to the art of dance.

Fred started out singing and dancing with his sister Adele and with the help of George and Ira Gershwin, the two were a hit throughout the 1920’s performing on both Broadway and the London stage, but their stint together ended in 1931 after the huge success of their Broadway performance of The Band Wagon when Adele left the stage to get married. Alone, Fred continued on with his career, making famous the song, By Myself. In 1932, he made a comeback to Broadway with The Gay Divorcee, a musical by Porter. Then he met Phyllis Livingston Potter and instantly fell in love. They married, had two children, Ava and Fred, Jr., and became known as the happiest couple in Hollywood until Phyllis’ untimely death shortly after Fred completed the movie version of The Band Wagon in 1954.

Astaire jumping 2

Fred Astaire dancing in a suit

Not long after the wedding Fred made his film debut with MGM, landing a starring role in the musical, Dancing Lady, alongside Joan Crawford and then signed up with RKO Pictures to star in Flying Down to Rio, his first film with Ginger Rogers. The Carioca, their first song together, became the dance craze of 1933.  Their second project together turned out to be the movie version of The Gay Divorcee, which was also a smash at the box office. In fact, the song The Continental won the first Academy Award for best song of 1934.The two were so successful that they went on to do a total of 10 movies together over the years.

Fred Astaire acted with many greats throughout his career including Lucille Bremer, Paulette Goddard, Rita Hayworth, Joan Leslie, Eleanor Powell, Ann Miller, Vera-Ellen, Jane Powell, Cyd Charisse, Audrey Hepburn and Judy Garland.

Over the years as times changed, musicals became less popular.  Astaire made a change, too. He turned his top hat in and donned a more serious visage becoming a dramatic film actor and the star of a number of television specials. He even made a guest appearance on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971.  He diversified, starting his own record label which he called “Ava Records” after his daughter. Astaire eventually retired from show business and opened up a chain of dance studios around the country.

During his career, he received an honorary Oscar, two Golden Globes, and many Emmys for his television achievements. He worked into his early 80’s and died in 1987 at the age of 88. Two years later he was honored with a special Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award by the recording industry for his contributions as a vocalist and lyric interpreter to the Great American Songbook. In a PBS documentary honoring him, Audrey Hepburn best summed up his contributions to the world when she not only called him a “genius,” but described him as “sophisticated, elegant, professional and utterly irresistible.” She added, “If perfection is what we strive for, then he certainly succeeded.”

Fred Astaire enriched the world with his many talents. As Richard Holbrook put it, “Fred Astaire will always remain in our lives forever…putting on his top hat…white tie…and tails…walking up the avenue…stepping out for a night on the town.” And Richard sure did him proud bringing back to life many of the great moments Astaire created through his song performances. In addition to the memorable ones just highlighted in this amazing tribute, Holbrook sang such notables as I’ve Got My Eyes on You,” “Night and Day,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Puttin’ On The Ritz,” and The Way You Look Tonight.”  He put a top hat on for Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails.”  Holbrook also sang, “How Long Has This Been Going On?,”  “New Sun In The Sky,” “Dearly Beloved,” “They All Laughed,” “Heigh Ho The Gang’s All Here” and “You’re All The World To Me,” as well as many others.

Perhaps Holbrook’s great ability to draw you into Astaire’s life and music stems from the fact that he grew up emulating Astaire. He was born in New York City and raised in Congers, New York. He grew up watching old films and especially loved Hollywood musicals. Richard pictured himself as a movie star and singer; he taught himself how to sing by listening to Judy Garland, Bing Crosby and, of course, Fred Astaire. He got his break in high school when he was chosen to sing, I Believe in You“, for their production of How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. He went on to play Freddy Eynsford-Hill in My Fair Lady. After studying music and drama at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts, he landed roles in such popular shows as The Sopranos and Spin City. He also frequented the soaps, All My Children, and One Life to Live, and landed leading roles in regional theater productions like Deathtrap and The Subject Was Roses.

Fred Astaire in a rare color photo.

Fred Astaire in a rare color photo.

Holbrook’s cabaret career began in 1985 and, in 2003, he gave his first tribute to Fred Astaire with The Tom Nelson Trio. That was when the act, “Richard Holbrook: The Untapped Fred Astaire,” was born.  Directed by Rex McGraw, it was well received. Show Business Weekly’s David Hurst described him as “a good musician with excellent diction and long, arching phrases that are impressive … a burnished tenor voice with a nice ring and a Garland-esque vibrato that can be effective.”  The next year Holbrook released his first CD, Richard Holbrook Steps Out featuring several popular songs from his hit Astaire show as well as numbers by other popular composers.

More recently, Holbrook has frequented such night venues as Danny’s Skylight Room, Don’t Tell Mama, The Hideaway Room @ Helen’s, and the Cafe Pierre. He has also appeared on WOR Radio’s The Joe Franklin Show and The Joey Reynolds Show. Holbrook performed his successful cabaret, Richard Sings Burton – The Songs of Burton Lane at Don’t Tell Mama in both 2008 and 2009. This show, like the current one, was directed by Richard Barclay accompanied by The Tom Nelson Trio. Holbrook made his first appearance at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency in 2011 and reprised the show again the following year at The Metropolitan Room with his centennial salute to Burton Lane. He was nominated for a MAC Award for Best Male Vocalist in 2013. Holbrook currently lives on the upper west side of Manhattan and loves it.

As for The Tom Nelson Trio which provided the romantic setting with their dreamy music, it is no accident that they had the people dancing in their seats. Their credentials are top-notch. In addition to being a talented pianist, Tom Nelson is a composer and arranger in New York City who has himself created many original compositions. He earned a Master’s Degree in Jazz Competition from the Manhattan School of Music and is a member of the BMI Jazz Composers’ Workshop. Tom Kirchmer, who plays bass, started his music career studying the double bass with a member of the NY Philharmonic and went on to earn a conservatory degree. He has since worked with such greats as Ray Charles, Marvin Hamlisch, Nancy Wilson, and Cy Coleman. Peter Grant, the drummer of the group, also graduated from the Manhattan School of Music.  He is a free-lance Broadway and Studio musician and has performed with the likes of Tom Wopat, Peggy Lee, and Astrud Gilberto. Appearing in Richard Holbrook’s debut CD, Richard Holbrook Steps Out, The Tom Nelson Trio has a CD of their own which they call Who Cares If Dreams Come True.

The brilliant Richard Barclay directed the show. A veteran Broadway and cabaret performer himself, he is an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker.

I cannot recommend Holbrook’s cabaret tribute to Fred Astaire highly enough. You don’t have to be an Astaire fan to love this show. It is first-rate entertainment. This theater critic gives five stars to this outstanding cabaret performance. If you missed it, you have one more chance to catch it. Richard Holbrook will be doing an encore performance at Don’t Tell Mama this Sunday, October 26.

Richard Holbrook: The Untapped Fred Astaire Revisited (October 19 & October 26, 2014)

Don’t Tell Mama, 343 W. 46th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-757-0788 (after 4 PM daily) or visit http://www.donttellmamanyc.com/shows

For more information on Fred Astaire – see article on the blog dandyfashioner

Running time: 80 minutes with no intermission

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