It didn’t take a genius to figure out the thinking behind the pairing of comedian Paul Rodriguez and singer Vikki Carr at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. But a look beyond the obvious--their shared Mexican American heritage--better explained both performances. Here are two entertainers whose long-running success has come because they’ve stuck close to their ethnic roots.
Years after getting on the charts with a number of pop singles in the 1960s, Carr revitalized her career by exploring the musical styles of her father’s homeland for the Mexican CBS label. That turn has served her well. Not only has it provided needed inspiration, it also has brought recognition, most recently in the form of a Grammy for best Mexican American performance for her tribute album “Recuerdo a Javier Solis.”
So it was no surprise that Carr’s best moments during Saturday’s show came with songs sung in Spanish. As is her practice, Carr early on told the audience of her Mexican descent by giving her full name: Florencia Bisenta de Casillas Martinez Cardona. Her simple explanations between numbers supported her fondness for boleros and the mariachi tradition.
Backed by a 10-piece orchestra that included two trumpeters and four guitarists, Carr demonstrated the same strength and command of voice that made “It Must Be Him,” a hit for her in 1967. Amazingly, the tone of her voice has changed little since then, and the familiar character it acquires when delivered at stronger volumes is as clear as ever.
She revisited the ‘60s early in the set, singing “With Pen in Hand,” one of her first hits, and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” Then it was off to songs sung in Spanish.
Carr sang a number of selections from the “Solis” album, including “Escandalo” (“Scandal”), the story of “a typical soap opera,” she explained. Taking a page from Natalie Cole, she sang a duet with Solis thanks to a tape of the late composer’s voice. But the duet was ill-advised, since Solis’ delicate, warm and emotional delivery made Carr’s style seem bland by comparison.
Carr’s long set was designed to show her versatility. In addition to the Spanish-language numbers and her past hits, she explored contemporary material (“Circle of Life” from “The Lion King”) as well as a jazzy medley that included “I Get a Kick Out of You” and “Mack the Knife.” She also paid tribute to Nat King Cole with a medley of his hits and a story of how Cole encouraged her after she suffered a disappointing Las Vegas appearance early in her career.
She closed with “It Must Be Him,” placing her words slightly behind the band in a futile effort to bring some life to this not-so-golden oldie. Though a good vehicle for demonstrating the strength of her voice, “It Must Be Him” makes as little sense now as it did when it first aired.
While Carr seemed enlivened by embracing her roots, Rodriguez gained little fresh inspiration from discussing his heritage in the type of material his career was founded on. (“My mother gave me bilingual spankings.”) And though his basic message seems to be that we’re all in this together, he didn’t hesitate to demonstrate the differences in the various cultures represented in our country.
Rodriguez skewered Mexicans, Caucasians, Roman Catholics, the Irish, Lutherans, Asians, blacks and Italians, but in such careful tones that no one could feel insulted.
Lines like “Where else but in America could an Irish girl marry a Mexican guy, drive a Japanese car to a Chinese restaurant and be arrested by a black cop?” may point out the diversity we experience, but aren’t necessarily funny. Another of his lines--" . . . America, what a great mixture of malcontents we have here"--comes closer.
Maybe Rodriguez was just playing it safe in front of this diversified audience. Occasionally he would push the limits, mimicking someone in the crowd who might have been offended by his equal-opportunistic racial stereotyping. But mostly this was Rodriguez on his best behavior.
A little more cynicism would help. His observation that “I’ve never understood racism. To hate someone for the color of their skin seems so shallow, when there are so many other wonderful reasons to hate people” started off in the right direction, but didn’t seem to go anywhere.
No doubt Rodriguez is a comedian with a big heart. But it shouldn’t keep him from stepping on a few toes.