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Claire Martin & Richard Rodney Bennett at the Algonquin - New York Times Review


27 May 2009
New York Times
Stephen Holden

"What goes on the road, stays on the road," is how the English jazz singer Claire Martin described "When in Rome (I Do as the Romans Do)," one of 15 songs with music by Cy Coleman at Tuesday's opening night performance of "Witchcraft," her show with Richard Rodney Bennett at the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, New York City.


"When in Rome" has lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, Coleman's greatest collaborator and the only major American lyricist whose bon mots consistently match Cole Porter's in capturing an attitude of jaded sophistication fraught with heartbreak. The more pain is exposed, the sharper the wit that covers it up.

Ms. Martin, who resembles a younger Jodie Foster, looks and sounds every bit the part of a well-traveled, emotionally vulnerable sybarite who might have spent a season accompanying the Rolling Stones on a world tour. "The Rules of the Road," another jaundiced Coleman/Leigh evocation of the erotic life, mentions "tricks of the trade" and concludes: "So love is a hoax/A glittering stream/Of little white lies." That realization, however, doesn't diminish the temptation to keep on playing the game.

The show concentrates on Coleman's early work, in which his elaborately syncopated melodies ("Witchcraft" and "The Best Is Yet to Come" are the most famous) and the sly, insinuating lyrics by Ms. Leigh and others constitute high-style songwriting repartee. And Ms. Martin's subtle, beautifully acted interpretations give them their due.

Her blasé up-for-anything attitude began to melt with her rendition of "I'm Gonna Laugh You Right Out of My Life." An early Coleman ballad with lyrics by Joseph Allan McCarthy, the song is associated with two of Ms. Martin's greatest influences, Shirley Horn and Carmen McRae. When Ms. Martin's shell cracked and raw emotion leaked out, she conveyed the downside of pleasure in shivering little phrases and a piercing emphasis on the words "beautiful joke."

Mr. Bennett, a celebrated classical and film composer with a long history of accompanying pop and jazz singers, is a shadow vocal presence as well as the show's pianist. A sensitive, truly intimate collaborator, he occasionally took the lead to sing in a slightly slurred husky murmur. The two voices melded in a final medley of non-Coleman standards, "The Very Thought of You" and "I Thought About You," in which they answered one other in a reverberating train of reflection.


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