By Sarah Downs

Dianne Fraser kicked off the release of her album You and I – The Words and Music of Leslie Bricusse with a cabaret of the same name at Don’t Tell Mama.  What an exciting moment for any artist.

Performing to a packed house, Fraser traced her love of the work of Leslie Bricusse over the years in repertoire from the 1960s to the 1990s.  As a lyricist and composer, Leslie Bricusse proved to be the voice of many generations, as we transitioned from the innocence of the Petula Clark era to the openness of 1970’s innovation and reinvention.   Bricusse excelled in different genres.  He broke ground in his work with Anthony Newley on more experimental works such as Stop The World I Want to Get Off and The Roar of the Greasepaint; The Smell of the Crowd which generated several hit songs covered by numerous pop and jazz singers.  Yet with composer Henry Mancini, Bricusse could also sink his teeth into full-on romantic musical comedy, delivering uber-pizzazz in the delicious “Le Jazz Hot” (Victor/Victoria). 

Bricusse collaborated as lyricist on everything from the theme to Goldfinger (1964) (with John Barry) to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) (with Anthony Newley) to Jekyll & Hyde (1990) (with Frank Wildorn) From a singer like Shirley Bassey to Gene Wilder to full on musical drama, his work explores a range of vocal textures.  Bricusse seems intent on validating human experience, whether it is addressing the inherent inequality of social class in Stop the World I Want to Get Off, the power of “Pure Imagination,” or the subject of homosexuality in Victor/Victoria.  Bricusse’s work may be sophisticated but it is not cynical.  Indeed,  songs like “Happiness” from the film Scrooge, for which Bricusse wrote both the lyrics and music, stand squarely in a hopeful space.

Fraser has chosen her repertoire well, as her voice is light, with greater strength in her lower register.  More importantly, she knows what story she wants to tell.  As her collaborator, Todd Schroeder has put together some fantastic arrangements that effectively carry through Fraser’s inspiration, some in unexpected ways.  His arrangement of “Feeling Good,” for instance, is a bit of a revelation.  When Fraser launches into the song, the music almost sneaks up on you.  Schroeder has taken a completely different path from the more familiar va-va voom big band sound, or the original’s noble anthem.  Rather, he takes his cue from the lyric – ‘breeze through the trees, sun in the sky’ — revealing a more thoughtful, easy going and expressive tune.  In duet with guest singer  Tim Connell, with his easy, mellifluous tenor, Fraser and Schroeder effectively intertwine two unlikely love songs, “Look at That Face” (Roar of the Greasepaint…) and “Something in Your Smile” from the film Dr. Doolittle, for which Bricusse wrote both the lyrics and music.

It’s interesting to note how often Bricusse’s work explores dualities.  Whether its the gay/straight, female/male dichotomy of Victor/Victoria, or the amoral/moral duality of the self in Jekyll & Hyde.  It is essential to hold the precarious balance of two conflicting ideas in ones’s head at one time.  Leaning into life’s contradictions yield’s greater emotional reward.   To me the quietly heart wrenching “Crazy World” from Victor/Victoria (a personal favorite), with its lyric of contradictions ‘I’ve got my pride, I won’t give in/Even though I’ll never win’ epitomizes this spirit.  Closing the show with the tender “Two for the Road” (music by Henry Mancini) Fraser brought us back to her original inspiration for the show, childhood dreams inspired by the music she grew up with.

This isn’t a powerhouse cabaret that hits you over the head with ‘look at me.’  Rather, “You and I”  leaves one feeling thoughtful and a little nostalgic for one’s lost, less cynical self.  How nice to be reminded of that.

You and I – The Words and Music of Leslie Bricusse, at Don’t Tell Mama (343 West 46th St.)

Directed byh Laura Hentry.  Starring Dianne Fraser.  Guest singer:  Tim Connell.  Musical Director/Arranger Todd Schroeder on Piano, Steve Doyle on Bass, and Dianne’s sister, Denise Fraser, on Drums.