This review of Phillip Officer's "Yip & Gersh" at the FireBird Cafe was written by Rita Sola and appeared Volume II, Issue 1 (March, 1998) of Applause! Applause! published by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens.
"Yip & Gersh" - Phillip Officer
FireBird Cafe (363 West 46th Street, NYC)
Reviewed 2/24/98 at 9:00 p.m.
An old Hollywood legend has it that when Yip Harburg first heard Harold Arlen play "Over The Rainbow" on the piano, he said, "That's not for little Dorothy. That's for Nelson Eddy." It is a tribute to the song that regardless of the type of voice possessed, a gifted singer can make it his or her own. As he proved at his recent engagement at the FireBird, Phillip Officer is one of these singers.
Essentially a singing actor (and his acting credits are considerable), Phillip Officer is a master interpreter of song. When he sings of "cows jumping over," you can hear those cows jump. Phrases are often spoken rather than sung and always appropriately and effectively. His range is extensive, from the wistfulness of "Over The Rainbow" to the playfulness of "Let's Take A Walk Around The Block". Phillip's delight with Harburg's rhymes, particularly in the latter, is infectious: "...Vladivostok where Bolsheviks flock..." and "...in Caracas on a jackass...".
Many years ago, screenwriter Charles MacArthur overheard two young women discussing a film that he had co-authored and which had just been released. But all their praise was for the star, Robert Montgomery, and Montgomery's clever dialogue. After his initial dismay, MacArthur realized that this was as it should be: the lines should sound like the character's own. It is this spontaneity that one finds in Phillip Officer's singing of "It's Only A Paper Moon" which he punctuates with interpolated rests as if he were searching for the right word. "Say it's only a (rest) canvas sky hanging over a (rest) muslin tree..." Yip would have been very pleased.
Some singers, particularly in opera, use their voices to make beautiful sounds that become part of the musical whole. The listener hears only the music, for the voice becomes another orchestral instrument, like a cello or a trumpet. This can be a pleasing aesthetic experience but it is not a dramatic one and, after a while, not a very interesting one. Phillip Officer's art is diametrically opposite. His voice is always at the service of the words; it commands you to pay attention to the words. It is understandable why his shows have so often had as their themes the works of particular lyricists rather than composers. On this occasion, there were two lucky lyricists: Yip Harburg and Ira Gershwin.
Although recognized as one of the most prolific writers on the American musical scene, Ira Gershwin once complained to his brother that he couldn't possibly write lyrics to a melody that George had just completed. "Still," said Ira, "it is a fascinating rhythm." With this, we can see a light bulb flash over his head. Although in 1924, many considered "Fascinatin' Rhythm", which was the biggest hit in their show "Lady Be Good", to represent the hallucination of a drug addict, Phillip sings it with a respect and concentration that reflect his genuine fascination with the rhythm.
Besides this piece and other standards, such as "A Foggy Day in London Town", and "Nice Work If You Can Get It", both from the Fred Astaire film "Damsel In Distress", and "They Can't Take That Away From Me" from "The Barkleys of Broadway", the last Astaire-Rogers film, it was a pleasure to hear such rarities as "It Happens Every Time", written with Burton Lane, and "One Life To Live", written with Kurt Weill.
Unfortunately, circumstances on the evening covered by this review were less than inspiring. Albeit a lovely venue, the FireBird's cabaret room is separated from the dessert kitchen by a very thin partition so that those seated at the north end were subjected to distracting noises. Moreover, there were problems with the sound system as the speaker in the northwest corner of the room periodically fell into a coma. Worse still, the audience that evening seemed, in large part, to consist of diners from the restaurant who had decided to have their Nesselrode with a little music on the side. Phillip handled their rudeness with remarkable good humor, commenting, after his opening numbers ("If This Isn't Love" and "Swonderful" sung back to back) that he hoped the coffee and the chit chat were out of the way. They were. Thanks to his charm and way of communicating a song, the audience sat entranced for the rest of the evening. For when Phillip Officer tells you he's got a secret, he's got a little secret, not only do you believe it, but you are convinced that you are the only person who's going to hear it.