Cabaret singer Andrea Marcovicci answered an old question during her concert Friday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre: Why don't they write songs like they used to? Indeed, she explained, they still do.
Then she proceeded to prove herself wrong.
Marcovicci spent the second half of a program dubbed "Greatest Hits/New Words" presenting recent material from emerging musical theater and cabaret composers; she promised that they continue the legacy of the American popular song. And certainly the music and lyrics performed were much more crafted and intelligent than the majority of what passes for pop music today.
But by comparing these songs with material from Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, Alan Jay Lerner and others presented in the evening's first half, Marcovicci made the clear the superiority of the classics.
With few exceptions, the new songs weren't nearly as clever as those written 40 and more years ago. Their melodies weren't nearly as memorable. And, for the most part, the lyricists took themselves way too seriously. Subject matter? As the old song says, anything goes.
One piece was about loss and AIDS, complete with poetically graphic descriptions. Another was a love song to a therapist. One number documented the growth of a child's vocabulary, and another put Anne Frank's words to music. A dog starred in one, but "me" took the leading role in most.
As a group, the pieces realistically reflect the emotions of our self-obsessed times. But few came close to the plain-spoken enchantment of "As Time Goes By," the humor of "My Husband's First Wife" or any of the other songs Marcovicci performed before intermission.
But the singer made her point: Worthy material is being penned in the '90s, and it's largely being ignored.
Marcovicci paid each song respect with sincere performances. Music director Glenn Mehrbach has orchestrated often haunting arrangements for a nine-piece ensemble that includes a pair of classical guitars, violin and oboe. Marcovicci's sense of theater turned each number into something of a short story as she introduced the composer, then performed it with an emphasis on the lyric and its tale.
Though not blessed with perfect vocal skills, she is a master at capturing attention. Her ease and graceful stage manner, even as she stopped one number and asked the orchestra for a fresh start, made sizable Cheng Hall seem intimate.
The singer had difficulties with pitch, especially in the lower range. Her vibrato tended to waddle, and on occasion her phrasing was uncertain. But these infrequent drawbacks were overcome by her polished delivery and ability to assume each lyric as if it were a dramatic role.
These abilities shone best on the familiar material, when she was accompanied only by pianist Mehrbach. She poked fun at the chance encounter promise of "Some Enchanted Evening," giving the song an incredulous reading before turning serious on the song's last line. "My Romance" and "Someone to Watch Over Me" were especially charming.
Among the new material, Mehrbach's "Mirror," with its layered meanings, came closest to the classic material, despite its '90s preoccupation with psychology. Steven Schwartz's "Life Goes On" was particularly well crafted and moving. The most fun and irreverent of the group was Philip Namanworth's "Avoid," a song deserving anthem status for its solution to all of life's problems.
Marcovicci deserves credit for searching out new songwriters and giving their songs light. But claiming that they still write songs like they used to is a stretch.