A surprisingly casual-looking Rick Stanley mounted the stage for the second performance of his big George-and-Ira-Gershwin show in this year's second annual Orlando Cabaret Festival. Somehow, I had expected a tux, or at least a boutonnière, but a loose striped shirt over de rigueur solid black theatrical duds set his body into relief against the Z-brick walls left over from the recent Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Stanley was not alone: A piano, a pitcher of faux martinis and house pianist Jason Wetzel joined him, along with a sizeable crowd. It was a wonderful respite from a rainy Sunday as we settled in for some of his superb vocal styling.
From the Gershwins' vast repertoire, Stanley has picked a dozen or so of the best tunes: "A Foggy Day (in London Town)," "Love Walked In," "'S Wonderful," "How Long Has This Been Going On?" While we're asking questions, just how many songs did the duo write, anyway? Hundreds, perhaps, and you've probably heard a good selection. They fill the old black-and-white movies that populate the otherwise dreary hours of cable-TV programming we all flip through. For example, almost everything Fred Astaire sang came from the pair, and while you always think first of his dancing, you also never heard him hit a sour note.
That sort of standard carries over to the performance Stanley puts on in Mad Cow's Stage Left Theater. Every number came across with a sparkle in his eye and a flourish from the piano. Even his single stumble on a song's opening note was handled with such grace that it seemed intentional, like a beauty mark on a courtesan's face. Gentle lighting cues reliant on blue and orange gels carried the audience from song to song, effecting emotional highs and lows yet never hitting us in the head like a digital special effect.
Mad Cow's oddly shaped space seems better suited to this sort of musical perambulation than it does to larger, more populous shows. While a piano is a large object to contend with on stage, it diminishes in size when faced with the killer combination of a microphone and a man singing his heart out. With no real competition forthcoming from action or dialogue, this show seems perfect for both the performer and the audience.
(Rick Stanley performs again July 23; the Orlando Cabaret Festival continues through July 25)