Something poignant resonated from the one-woman musicals Don’t Stop Me Now and Drama of the Gifted Grownup that appeared recently in Portland.
The shows’ stars—Courtney Freed in Don’t Stop Me Now and Rosalinde Block of Drama of the Gifted Grownup — never took breaks during their breathless 90-minutes cabaret performances. They were so immersed and invested in material that they had created, and in Block’s case, lived through, that they risked others not finding these close-to-their-hearts shows as interesting as they did. And though touching, their pieces were far from Broadway productions (as were the $20 ticket prices).
But these two performers, if not megastars like Barbra Streisand or Carole King, were talented and utterly sincere, and they exuberantly conveyed those values to their small audiences.
Don’t Stop Me Now
Freed, the Portland creator and center-stage performer of Don’t Stop Me Now: The Freddie Mercury Experience that played April 4-8 at the 95-seat wraparound Coho Theater, loves the late and great Queen performer. Freddie Mercury tops her list of voice role models though she doesn’t quite have his three-plus-octave range. You couldn’t have stopped Freed’s admiration for the rocker during the show any more than you could have stopped the slick, sweet Mercury from aching about love a few decades ago.
A four-piece live band led by pianist David Saffert (wearing a pair of bright gold boots) backed her, but Freed, 37, was poured into her skintight sequined dress to showcase her performance, not theirs. Directed by much-about-town actor and director Isaac Lamb, the show was all about her love affair with Mercury’s music and life. If she could—as Mercury did in the ‘70s and ‘80s—pull the audience into her gig, she succeeded on many levels. And that she did. Mercury fans, who comprised most of the audience, were all over the songs—doing the Wave, cheering, singing and mouthing the words.
Freed thankfully didn’t try to embody the outsized rock star, but she captivated the Mercury-nostalgic crowd with his songs, especially toward the end with Somebody to Love, Love of My Life, and Bohemian Rhapsody. In her flexible mezzo, she performed 16 Mercury hits arranged by Portland jazz musician Reece Marshburn. She added some vamping and dancing (her singing is much better than either) and interspersed her songs with spicy narration. She told us, among other juicy tidbits, that Mercury never fixed his teeth—he had four extra—because he thought his voice would change if he did. She mentioned he grew up in Zanzibar feeling unloved by strict Zoroastrian parents.
Despite microphone screw-ups that occurred as early as the second song, and re-occurred off and on throughout the show, Freed was armed with enough humorous gravitas to cope with the problems (three people fiddled with her mike and eventually brought her a new one). She owns the pipes to sing without the mike, but such tunes as Don’t Stop Me Now and Seaside Rendezvous would have been better if the mike had functioned.
As for earplugs, you could have left them at home. The music leaned far more toward jazzy cabaret than ear-killing British rock. And even if you weren’t a diehard Queen fan, you couldn’t resist Mercury’s melodies. Killer Queen, Love of My Life, Millionaire Waltz, I Want to Break Free stick in your mind, and that belief spurred Freed to write and perform the show. She wanted to make the songs last forever, even if Mercury’s life was cut short at 45 in 1991 by AIDS.
Drama of the Gifted Grownup
Rosalinde Block, who has a few decades on Freed but as much verve as the younger singer, told her own story in Drama of the Gifted Grownup, A Musical Journey for two nights in late March in conjunction with Triangle Productions at the 25-seat Board Room Cabaret, and once at the Shout House.
Directed by former Portlander Laura Lundy of Blue Panther Productions, the living-room-style show was all Block—her keyboards, her compositions, her voice, and her whimsical drawings that served as scenery on a screen behind her. She debuted the show in 2014 in the 199-seat Manhattan Movement theater, and in 2017, performed it at the New York Theater Festival Summerfest. Reviews compared her to comedic self-deprecating storyteller David Sedaris, but surely, Block is her own version of energy bunny.
With 19 songs, all her own, her show traveled back into her life when she was 3 years old, reaching up to play the piano keys in her St. Louis Jewish household. Her parents recognized her gift and groomed her to be a concert pianist. That was not to be. Instead she fell in love with New York and was determined to make it there as a popular singer-songwriter.
Her show followed her New York musical career from pre-funk to gospel to R&B to funk to jazz to whatever came next, chasing fame and recognition. She was picked up by Columbia Records in her 20s and was a four-time Billboard award-winner (Till I Make it to the Top was included in the show), but the hustling never stopped. The Eyes of the Innocent Child, No Frills Cheap Thrills, and It Can’t Go Anywhere but Up reflected the times and hit some radio charts, but never really made the Big Time. But for Baby Boomers, especially, these angsty but breezy songs hit a dominant chord.
Part of the show touched on her education at Sarah Lawrence, her dogged determination to be heard, her oddball and high-brow nightlife shows and tedious day jobs, her gig on the QE2, tragic marriage, single motherhood, and wealth of talents (she draws she sings she acts she records). She told us about her hardscrabble life in the same Manhattan apartment where she’s lived for decades, about her award-winning children’s book, Julia Morphs, about her unencouraging stereotypically Jewish mother. But she never whined, and really, she could have stressed her successes more than her failures. Block was buoyant and warm like a good party host, and her openness gave us all hope that we, too, might have a story to tell.
In a phone interview from New York City before she arrived in Portland and after she’d played a game of basketball, Block said about her show and story: “I’ve been to hell and back. All those years I made an ass of myself! But I give a shot of inspiration with my show. I give people a reprieve. We all have a reason to be here.”
One-woman-show music heavyweights like Storm Large and Bette Midler can hold down a large stage and, of course, what an unfair comparison in light of these two shows’ shoestring-budgets. Freed and Block had to convince viewers in intimate non-glitzy settings that they had something to sing about. If the shows wouldn’t cut it on Broadway, or close to off-Broadway, they deserved audiences for their gutsy performances and passion-fueled stories.