To promote their recent CD A Song About Forever, The Kurt Weill Project performed every night between March 25 and 29 at the cramped Metropolitan Room at 34 West 22nd Street. With Hilary Gardner on vocals, Frank Ponzio on piano, Peter Donovan on bass and Vito Lesczak on drums, this young hip jazz group lovingly performed granny’s music without a whiff of irony. Recalling another lost smoke-filled era, they could easily have played Rick’s place in Casablanca without anyone raising an eyebrow. Generally Gardner sang the verses, then stepped aside so Ponzio could adroitly improvise on the piano as she sweetly skatted, and came back for the finish. Donovan took center stage for at least one number to riff on the bass and would have been welcomed for more. Gardner mentioned during the set that Weill insisted that he did not write for posterity, but groups such as The Kurt Weill Project are very much keeping his memory green. The performance was refreshingly free of any tricks or theatrics. The four let the music speak for itself.
Although the pretty chanteuse seems hardly old enough to express every nuance of the old standard “September Song,” Gardner’s beautiful, clear, flexible voice was as smooth as fine aged bourbon during the other ballads and torch songs. She caressed every word of Ira Gershwin’s “This Is New” from Lady in the Dark, Langston Hughes’ “Lonely House” from Street Song, Sherwood Anderson’s title song from Lost in the Stars and Ogden Nash’s “Speak Low,” ”Foolish Heart” and “I’m A Stranger Here Myself” from One Touch of Venus. She was thrilled that someone gave her a set of 78s of Mary Martin from the original cast recording of the Weill-Nash Broadway hit. (How she was able to play them in this digital age was not revealed.) Lesczak wittily bridged “Speak Low” to the classic “Mack the Knife” by imitating on the drums the sound of a 78 spinning on an old victrola.
Apparently Gardner was a bit under the weather: the only indication of any problem was some brief off-the-cuff coughing after she turned the spotlight over to Ponzio during a late number. She sang one song from the composer’s brief Parisian exile “Youkali” in French, but wisely she largely avoided the Weimar Weill. The disappointing “Pirate Jenny” from The Three Penny Opera lacked the venom the original Jenny, Lotte Lenya, spewed in her legendary German and English versions as well as the world-weariness Bebe Neuwirth effortlessly evoked in 2004’s sold-out Kurt Weill revue Here Lies Jenny. But the quartet effectively exorcised the ghost of Bobby Darin in their jazzy, original take on “Mack the Knife” that they counterpointed with the more classical “Marterl” from Das Berliner Requiem, an elegy to several working girls killed during a political protest rally back in Germany. Kurt Weill would have been pleased.
The Kurt Weill Project
Metropolitan Room at 34 West 22nd Street.