Brennan remounted a show she premiered at the K.A.C. last July called then, as now, St. Louie Woman, singing the songs she loved growing up. The newest number she included was "Another Winter in a Summer Town" from the musical Grey Gardens. This was also, for me, the highlight of the afternoon. It was everything it should be, beautifully sung and acted by a performer in complete control of her instrument.
Brennan uses her father, the late Jack Buck, as a touchstone for the story she weaves through the music of growing up in St. Louis after moving here at five years of age when Buck was hired as "color announcer" for the St. Louis Cardinals. She is the oldest of Buck's eight children, six with his first wife. Brennan brings tears to her and our eyes with "T'was a Moment like This," which her mom used to sing while doing housework. One day, she stopped singing it and told Brennan to do the same. "Children know," she said quietly, referring to her parents' breakup.
Most of the patter is humorous, however, as she tells stories of living on the Hill (but not Italian), Ladue (but not Jewish) and St. Louis City as a young wife and teacher at public schools (but not African-American). Her tale brings her around to the understanding that no one is an outsider, when you realize that all people are just that, people.
I reviewed Brennan's act last summer, and while I liked it, I found some flaws with her singing. Those are all but gone now. She has a rich alto and she's especially strong (and sexy at sixty!) on upbeat, jazzy numbers like "Lullaby of Birdland," "Volare" (sung partly and perfectly in Italian) and "I Believe in You." The only up tempo piece that seemed to challenge her was Rosemary Clooney's hit, "Brazil." But, overall, she's honored her vocal range more fully now, and she's become an exellent interpreter of the American Songbook.
Rick Jensen is a fine accompanist for Brennan and they're comfortable with each other. Their interaction sets the tone for her connection with the audience, which is as strong as anyone I've seen in a local cabaret. She has an acting background, and is currently a director and professor of speech and theatre at Harris-Stowe State University, so she's well-equipped to elicit the requisite emotion and meaning from her words and music. I had a marvelous time and the hour she spent with us flew by too quickly.
While Brennan started her teaching career at Sumner, the star of the second half of the show went to high school there. Emmy-award winning storyteller Bobby Norfolk, dressed out in a Kansas City Monarch's uniform and equipped with a set of slides and his own pianist, Pete Ruthenburg, whose "Satin Doll" would make Ellington himself sit up and give a listen, took the stage. When I spoke to Norfolk in an interview last week, I asked him if he was a baseball fan, which I thought was a pretty dumb question, until he replied "Not really." He explained he is a historian, and he has dug deeply into the story of the Negro Leagues to pull together this engaging and informative presentation.
He switches caps to go back and forth between his "narrators," St. Louis' own James "Cool Papa" Bell, and Satchel Paige. Both had Monarch connections, but also played for many other teams and even in Cuba, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America in winter. Not incidentally, in those countries, their color was of no consequence. Hotels, restaurants, clubs, etc., were not restricted. They were not hassled in any way. In the U.S. "Land of the Free," they weren't even allowed to shower when they played at a white Major League Park.
The title is taken from a team called the Indianapolis Clowns who mimed playing baseball as pre-show entertainment before a "real" game. Norfolk compared them to the Harlem Globetrotters. By turns funny, poignant, and downright horrible, Norfolk tells it all, but never angrily. It is nearly inconceivable that it wasn't until 1947 when Jackie Robinson crossed the "color line." Part of that deal was a contract he signed with Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers that guaranteed he would not react with any kind of negativity no matter what was said to him or about him for three years.
"Cool Papa's so fast he can turn off the light and get in the bed before the room goes dark," Satchel Paige noted of Bell's famous speed. Well, he could, but there's a story behind that involving a light fixture with a three-second delay and a joke Bell played on his roommate. He tells us how he got his nickname, and about his life after baseball. He returned to St. Louis with his wife and daughter and worked for over twenty years as a custodian at City Hall. He was an unassuming man with a great gift. Paige was less unassuming, but no less talented. Their stories deserve to live on, and we're lucky to have Bobby Norfolk as their guardian and communicator.
All in all, it was a most enjoyable afternoon during the holiday season, and I'll be looking forward to seeing both of these performers again. Brennan tells me she's working on a new showcase of Doris Day songs, and Norfolk has many other tales to tell for audiences of all ages. You can read about him at www.folktales.com, and I hope you will. Thanks to Beverly Brennan and Bobby Norfolk, one of my Christmas presents came early this year.