20th Century Pop … a Musical Celebration

The surprisingly tasty recipe for "20th Century Pop" might best be described as oil, oil and vinegar. Sharing the small stage at Rockefeller Plaza's Rainbow & Stars cabaret as if they were sisters, girl-group queen Darlene Love, soul wailer Merry Clayton and (here it comes) world-weary rock chanteuse Marianne Faithfull come together in what will no doubt stand as one of the more memorable musical stagings this season. And the novelty is only partly -- a small part, it turns out -- responsible.

The surprisingly tasty recipe for “20th Century Pop” might best be described as oil, oil and vinegar. Sharing the small stage at Rockefeller Plaza’s Rainbow & Stars cabaret as if they were sisters, girl-group queen Darlene Love, soul wailer Merry Clayton and (here it comes) world-weary rock chanteuse Marianne Faithfull come together in what will no doubt stand as one of the more memorable musical stagings this season. And the novelty is only partly — a small part, it turns out — responsible.

Credit producer Steve Paul with imagining what few (anybody?) others could have: that the voices of these ’60s survivors would mesh as cleverly and effectively as the mix of rock-era standards performed. Even when taking their solo turns, Love, Clayton and Faithfull bounce their distinctive styles off one another beautifully.

Of the three, Love perhaps is best-known to Rainbow’s jacket-and-tie crowd, having racked up any number of hits as an early star of Phil Spector’s girl-group stable. On “He’s a Rebel” and “The Boy I’m Gonna Marry,” her voice doesn’t seem to have aged a second, as clear and filled with teenage vigor as it was in her heyday. Clayton, with the muscular, gravelly voice of a classic gospel belter, is known by sound if not name as one of rock’s best backup singers (the Rolling Stones'”Gimme Shelter,” Joe Cocker’s “With a Little Help From My Friends”).

Then there’s Faithfull, whose whiskey-and-cigarettes register and clipped, Bette Davis cadences have earned her a niche as rock’s answer to Edith Piaf, Marlene Dietrich and Lotte Lenya. Providing a wizened gravity to the soaring harmonies of her co-stars, Faithfull’s presence lends textures — vocal and emotional — that keep the revue from being little more than a top-notch oldies act. Faithfull can even make as tired a warhorse as Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” newly listenable.

Love, sitting atop a piano, hits her own high point with a show-stopping rendition of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” although her choice of material lets her down with “Broken Wings,” the ’80s MTV hit. Still, she squeezes more out of the mediocre song than Mister Mister ever could have dreamed possible.

Clayton, providing the evening’s R&B grit, would earn her place among the group if she sang nothing besides Leon Russell’s “A Song for You,” but she adds to that blazing performance a welcome run through Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” The show also gives her the opportunity to take the lead on the song that earned her a mention in rock almanacs, and “Gimme Shelter” never sounded so soulful.

In tandem, the singers hit the requisite girl-group repertoire –“The Shoop Shoop Song,””He’s Sure the Boy I Love”– along with other not-unexpected numbers:”Up on the Roof,””(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.” Brian Wilson’s “In My Room” is a curveball, and a standout. Love and Clayton duet on a sweet “You’ve Got a Friend.”

Backed by a tight four-piece rock band that suits both the room and the trio, Clayton, Faithfull and Love enjoy a camaraderie that would seem as unlikely as their vocal harmonies. Even their Shirelle moves — with Faithfull just a tad off — are just right.

20th Century Pop ... a Musical Celebration

Production: NEW YORK A Rainbow & Stars presentation of a musical revue featuring Merry Clayton, Marianne Faithfull and Darlene Love. Conceived and produced by Steve Paul, directed by Lynne Taylor-Corb ett, musical direction and arrangements, Benjy King.

Crew: Lighting, Tim Flannery; sound, Ed Richardson. Opened Jan. 9, 1996, at Rainbow & Stars. Reviewed Jan. 16; 100 seats; $ 40 top. Running time: 1 HOUR.

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