When a '50s pop singer like Gogi Grant, best known for her wistful No. 1 single "Wayward Wind," returns to performing after decades of retirement, the obvious question is, "How many of the old skills are still intact?" The answer often is "few" or "none."
Grant's performance Monday night at the Westwood Playhouse, however, triggered a somewhat different response. In a well-prepared program of eclectic standards--many of them ballads--Grant's precise but warm alto voice showed no signs of deterioration. She clearly is a singer whose velvety tone has not been damaged by the extended layoff.
But like many of the singers who matured in the early '50s environment of lush string sounds and anemic rhythm sections, Grant, despite a pleasant stage demeanor, placed far too much emphasis on sound over substance. As good as she sometimes was Monday, she would have been far better had she concerned herself more with storytelling and less with the production of pure tones.
Her performances of Dave Frishberg's whimsical "My Attorney Bernie" and Stephen Sondheim's "Ladies Who Lunch," for example, were beautifully done, in part because Grant's interpretations were dominated by the busy lyrics of both songs, allowing little time for her to focus on the production of pear-shaped notes.
But a Fred Astaire-Irving Berlin medley was flawed by Grant's overblown phrasing and general immobility. As a product of the pre-Presley, stand-in-one-place pop singing era, she simply seemed to lack a feel for body movement.
Grant, who received smoothly understated accompaniment from the Bob Florence Trio, returns to the Playhouse on Monday and Tuesday.