THE SOUNDTRACK OF OUR LIVES: AL SAPIENZA and DEBORAH RENNARD at Feinstein's at Vitello's
Reviewers aren’t generally supposed to inject themselves into their objective write-ups of shows they see, but, in as delightful a manner as possible, veteran actors turned compelling retro-hipster club performers Al Sapienza and Deborah Rennard delightfully left me no choice.
Immediately after experiencing their sold-out musical extravaganza The Soundtrack of Our Lives, I zipped home and created a playlist of the glorious original versions all the warm and wonderful, instantly recognizable classics they performed from the 60’s, 70’s and beyond. I say “experience” because as charming and appealing as they are, and as well their vocals were suited to the material they clearly love as much as their audience, their show – a playful, stylistically zigzagging emotional rollercoaster infused with elements pop, rock, soul, jazz, Broadway and cabaret - involves far more than merely listening. It’s about connecting our life stories to theirs and our hearts and memories to songs that defined an era, and for those of a certain age, defined us personally.
After launching the set with an emotional duet of “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” and solo spotlights for each on a playful “Sweet Caroline” (him) and dramatic, operatic “I Dreamed a Dream” (her), the two introduced themselves with whimsical video clips of their unique, illustrious TV careers. Rennard’s best-known role found her owning the 80’s as J.R. Ewing’s secretary “Sly” Lovegren on the prime time smash “Dallas,” while Sapienza’s been the consummate character actor for three decades, achieving his greatest renown as a regular on “The Sopranos” and “House of Cards.”
Beyond simply presenting spirited arrangements of the songs, the two weaved in colorful anecdotes throughout that illuminated how their lives and careers connected (even tangentially) to the music. Sapienza was at his most heartfelt presenting the loneliness of pursuing acting in Los Angeles and being on the road via Neil Diamond’s classic “I Am…I Said” and “Play Me,” while Rennard memorably shared her unfulfilled Broadway ambitions via wild renditions of “Cabaret” and “Don’t Rain on My Parade” that drew on her formidable dramatic skills as well as her large, supple vocal range.
She definitely could have made it on the Great White Way had the producers of Dallas not been so impressed with her audition that they totally changed the character to fit her persona. Sapienza spent years touring in Beatlemania and had a blast harmonizing with his partner on two of the Fab Four’s early hits, “She Loves You” and “Nowhere Man.” He particularly covered the emotional waterfront tapping into the various aspects of love, easing from “Can’t Help Falling in Love” to the heartbreaking and poetic “If You Could Read My Mind.”
Part of the fun of the show was the whimsical way the dapperly dressed singers (she did more dazzling costume changes than Diana Ross!) peppered their repertoire with fantastic tunes just for their own sake, apropos of nothing. Sapienza admitted as much before bringing fresh upbeat energy and his storytelling skills to “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl”) and doing everything he could to showcase his love for Neil Diamond (the set included the spiritual drama of “Holly Holy,” my personal favorite) and Frank Sinatra (with a sly duet of “Somethin’ Stupid” and a grand, crowd-pleasing spin through “New York, New York”).
Theirs was that rare show where every song is both a highlight and revelation, but the standouts were tunes that allowed them to showcase their intricate vocal harmonies (a superset of Simon & Garfunkel’s “I Am a Rock” and “The Sound of Silence”) and their romantic, sultry way with literal duets on “Somewhere” and two pieces that took them out of the 60’s-70’s realm, “All I Ask Of You” and “The Prayer.”
Both drew on their acting skills for tour de force versions of songs that allowed them to explore their emotional solo artistry. Her shining moment was Barbra Streisand’s “People,” and his was a filmic rendition of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” Closing the show with another Beatle-related number, “Twist and Shout,” allowed the audience not just to sing but get up and dance along. It was that kind of evening. You never knew what might happen next, but it was always multiple shades of amazing.
Kudos must be given to the tasteful, inventive and often swinging arrangements and backing of the duo’s band, led by Barry Manilow’s longtime musical director Joey Melotti and a powerful group of L.A. cats featuring guitarist Michael Higgins, bassist Ian Martin and Tower of Power drummer Russ McKinnon.
Something tells me had Sapienza and Rennard wanted to add an hour, the audience would have stayed. I wouldn’t mind being inspired to create a longer Spotify playlist next time around.