Some knit; others compose. When not tapping through “On the Town” or needling her next-door neighbor Archie Bunker as Irene Lorenzo, Betty Garrett filled her spare time cranking out lyrics and the occasional tune — and, unlike most entertainers’ sidelines foisted on the public, her work is damn good. None of the songs is less than competent and some are ready for primetime cabaret duty. Both lady and gems are a pleasure to experience, though they aren’t exactly placed in the most glittering setting during the limited run at Theater West.
Frail but feisty (“They told me every time I said I’m 88 you’d applaud, and they were right!”), Garrett hands off numbers to an ensemble of seven Theater West colleagues while keeping some of the choicest for herself.
Patter song “Boca Chica” and the comic “Francois” hearken back to the tart-tongued honey who introduced “South America, Take It Away” in “Call Me Mister” a lifetime ago. Her ballads court cliche but never embrace it, and every so often she’ll hit on a keen image — “Love is like a smoke ring/If you close your hand around it, it’s gone,” from “Let Her Go” — that says “pro at work.”
Unlike most closet wordsmiths, Garrett knows how to crawl into other characters’ skin, as in a number for Carson McCullers’ “The Member of the Wedding” assigned long ago as homework by BMI Workshop impresario Lehman Engel. With Garrett standing in for 10-year-old Brandon de Wilde (baseball cap and all), Barbara Mallory precisely captures Frankie Addams’ bursts of inchoate longing in the soaring song (“Oh me, oh man! … I think I hear a color/I think I see a sound”).
Still, the evening’s dearest moments are those coming directly out of Garrett’s experience, as with a stunning explanation to her granddaughter of how to “Take my love and pass it on” in order to “Remember Me.”
The star describes a whirlwind vaudeville world tour with blacklisted husband Larry Parks (“The Jolson Story”) when film work dried up, prompting Mallory and Andy Taylor’s re-creation of the enchanting London Palladium hit “Lack-a-Daisy Day,” sung on a bench by two sleepy vaudevillians who can’t be bothered to put one soft shoe in front of the other.
Biggest regret is that only Taylor and Mallory (and Garrett of course) possess the showbiz chops to sell numbers. The others, with small voices and low charisma, are encouraged by John Carter — co-director Garrett had other matters to attend to, surely — to sashay through lack-a-daisy performances with only the most tentative commitment to moves and lyrics.
Since Garrett has likely spent most of her life hearing her songs at a family piano, it seems sad to bring the same air of what-the-hey impromptu to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. She and her work deserve a more potent showcase.
In any event, there’s something showbiz-wonderful about a star’s memorizing and delivering two hours’ worth of intros and lyrics with warmth and pizzazz when others half her age can’t recall where they put their keys.
Losing her place once on opening night, she took a cue from accomplished pianist Paul Chipello, shrugged, reminded us she’s 88 (applause) and finished without skipping a beat. She’s still a tart-tongued honey, don’t let anybody kid ya.
First-night presence of members of the Parks and Lloyd Bridges families lent extra poignancy to second-act songs detailing the broods’ long-standing love and respect, including a rare audio clip of papa Lloyd singing (beautifully) a Garrett-written “Lullaby” on the old “Dinah Shore Show.”