In 1955, jazz pianist, songwriter and actor Bobby Troup recorded an album of songs with words by Johnny Mercer, who penned a wry poem for the liner notes. In those verses, Mercer, the lyricist for at least 1,200 songs, neatly summed up his craft: "I write because I love to write / And hope the words are not too trite … I do the best with what I have."
His best was extraordinary, as you can hear at Everyman Theatre in "A Concert Tribute to Johnny Mercer," which wraps up this weekend. Three vocalists work their way through more than 30 songs, both familiar and rare, including some of Mercer's best collaborations with other songwriters and a sampling of items that boast his own melodies.
This fifth annual cabaret at Everyman is directed in straightforward fashion by Vincent M. Lancisi and features, for the fourth year, music director Howard Breitbart at the piano.
The show doesn't generate quite as much snap and playfulness as last season's Irving Berlin celebration. It's more traditional and, at its occasional low points, a little too much like a lounge act. But most of the time, the cabaret hits the right notes, thanks especially to the dynamic voices and fresh styling of Judy Simmons and Delores King Williams. They are both delightfully adept at inhabiting a lyric.
Simmons really shines in ballads. She caresses "I Remember You" with a Barbara Cook-like elegance — I can't think of higher praise — and taps into the heart of "P.S. I Love You" with the subtle warmth of veteran jazz singer Carol Sloane.
With comic numbers, Simmons proves just as winning. She gets good mileage out of such little-known pieces as "The Weekend of a Private Secretary" (a 1930s paean to the charms of Cuban men) and "Whatcha-Ma-Call-It," a song written for, but not used in, a 1956 film musical based on "It Happened One Night."
When it comes to lighthearted fare, Williams sounds right at home, too. She delivers a terrifically animated account of "Arthur Murray Taught Me Dancing in a Hurry," a still-funny song from the 1942 flick "The Fleet's In."
Williams also gets a chance to tackle some of the finest examples of Mercer's craft, including songs he wrote with Harold Arlen, the composer who seemed to bring out the best in the wordsmith. "I Had Myself a True Love," from the Broadway show the two men created, "St. Louis Woman," is practically an opera aria in structure, technical demands and emotional scope. Williams meets those challenges in a performance that is vocally and interpretively compelling.
She's just as vivid in a medley of "Come Rain or Come Shine" from that same show and a song written a few years earlier with a different songwriter (Rube Bloom), "Day In, Day Out," which strikes the same basic theme.
The sense of spontaneity and involvement that Williams and Simmons bring to the cabaret accounts for much of the entertainment value. Their duet of "Autumn Leaves" and "When October Goes" (with a tune by Barry Manilow set to a Mercer lyric) is a highlight.
That duet also features a few measures sung without amplification. The effect is magical, and only reconfirms my belief that microphones aren't necessary at all in Everyman's intimate space. Certainly not with singers so attentive to diction as Simmons, Williams and the third member of the vocal trio, Jamie Zemarel.
Zemarel doesn't have as distinctive a voice as his colleagues. When he holds back, he's effective, as in "Whistling Away the Dark," a beguiling ballad with music by Henry Mancini. But when another Mercer/Mancini gem, "Charade," enters the picture, Zemarel blasts through it, overplaying his vocal hand. He does that often in the show, simply pushing hard in a way that doesn't quite ring true.
I have similar reservations about Breitbart's styling at the keyboard, which takes too many aggressive, honky-tonk turns, even in songs that call for a lighter touch. But I suspect mine is a minority view, and I hasten to add that Breitbart's energy and rock-solid technique certainly give this welcome celebration of the Mercer magic a solid foundation.
If you go
"A Tribute to Johnny Mercer" runs through Sunday at Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St. $30. Call 410-752-2208 or go to everymantheatre.org.