Some singers are so good you can literally hear how much a song means to them as they perform it. It doesn’t happen very often, but it did last week at the West Bank Cafe on 42nd Street as Irish singer Mary Deady unveiled her latest musical journey at the Broadway hotspot.
A familiar face on the Irish scene in the city, it felt as though we were being collectively re-introduced to her since she is perhaps best known for singing Irish music. For many, including myself, this was our first introduction to her as a singer of the American songbook.
Aided by the utterly flawless musicianship of pianist and musical director Jeff Cubeta, Deady’s show From Ireland to America: A Musical Journey In Song was a marvel from the opening number.
It was Deady’s good fortune to be born in Co. Kerry, holy ground for generations of world-class singers and musicians. There she learned to play the harp, and later she left for Dublin for classically trained singing lessons that would eventually take her far from home on the musical journey that was her own life.
Deady chose songs that conveyed the immigrant love (and sometimes secret pining for) the homeland, and this she did as well as I have ever had the good fortune to hear. But the show has wider ambitions than merely relying on all too easy sentiment. Deady has a compelling tale to tell, and that is part of what takes this performance to the next level.
What I did not anticipate was being so moved by the deep connections between her life and the music that she took ownership of, each time from the first note.
Deady also sang songs in praise of the fairly demonic energy of New York City itself, and her version of the 1930 Cole Porter classic I Happen to Like New York seemed to conjure the whole damn city in a tribute that delighted the hard bitten New Yorkers in her audience. Believe me, that takes some skill.
“Last Sunday afternoon I took a trip to Hackensack,” she sang. “But after I gave Hackensack the once over, I took the next train back. I happen to like New York. I happen to love this burg.”
You know you’re deeply connecting when your audience is applauding you wildly before you’ve even reached the final chorus. That happened many times during Deady’s performance, and it’s a tribute to her skill as a singer that she could switch between the conflicting demands of the American songbook with its changes of mood and melody so nimbly.
You can’t sing a Stephen Sondheim song until you lived it first, and you can’t match his phrasing until you know exactly what he means. When you do, though, you can nail an audience to the wall with sincerity, experience, yearning and smarts that are his hallmark, and Deady did this so effortlessly that I found myself hoping selfishly she will consider offering an exclusively Sondheim evening in the near future.
In particular Deady’s rendition of “No One Is Alone,” culled from Sondheim’s masterful musical Into the Woods, found its emotional mark, conveying both rueful experience and the wisdom that it brings in the same note.
“Anyone Can Whistle” did likewise, but her version of “Not While I’m Around” from Sweeney Todd, which on the night she dedicated to her daughter, was so heartfelt and so carefully conveyed that it became one of the high water marks of the night.
There was fun to be had too. “Look to the Rainbow,” an irresistible number from the equally irresistible musical Finian’s Rainbow, lent some golden age of Broadway lyricism to the proceedings. In life as in song you won’t go too far wrong by following the fellow who follows a dream, and Deady made time for this reflection in her well-chosen set list.
I would have liked to have heard even more detail about her life and her relationship to the songs she sang on the night, but that was because Deady’s a natural storyteller, gifted with identifying the lessons of her own experience (and knowing how to have a laugh about them in the process). Hopefully that will be a feature of future productions.
Deady has travelled the world as the lead singer with the National Folk Theater of Ireland, but luckily for us she has found a home in New York City, where she has sung at signature venues throughout the city.
Knowing her audience on the night, Deady led a spirited encore of “Molly Malone,” and sent everyone home singing. What could be more Irish, or more delightful, than that?