I still vividly remember the first time I saw Laura Nyro perform. It was Christmas Eve, 1970. The venue was the fabled Fillmore East. It was a time of war, assassination, and Richard Nixon. What the country and everyone living in it needed, was healing. Some things never change. If you’ve ever been in New York City on Christmas Eve, you know that there’s magic in the air. Anything was possible that night, even a soothing of our troubled souls.
Laura emerged dressed in a long black gown to match the elegant Steinway grand that graced the stage. There were flashes of red from her lips, and from the single long-stemmed rose that had been placed, gently no doubt, atop the piano. Her fourth album “Christmas and the Beads of Sweat”, had been released just a month earlier, and her hometown eagerly anticipated her return to the stage. I was there that night, my heart still broken from a failed romance. At times like that, I could always turn to Laura. No one’s music has ever meant more to me.
As you might imagine, it was with a blend of interest, and not a little bit of skepticism that I approached One Child Born: The Music of Laura Nyro, on an April night at Philadelphia’s wonderful World Cafe Live earlier this year. On the one hand, it seemed entirely appropriate that it should be a one-woman show, because the image of Laura Nyro that has stuck with me over the years is the one of that small solitary figure at that massive Steinway on that holiday night so many years ago. But Laura was nothing if not idiosyncratic, and I had to wonder if the young woman who carried the weight of my memories and expectations on her shoulders in Philadelphia that night could recreate that old magic.
When I took my seat, the first thing I noticed was the single red rose on the black grand piano. Nice touch that. Score one for the home team. When the vivacious singer/actress Kate Ferber sat down at the piano and began to play Laura’s songs, my doubts faded into the night. This was no imitation. There were no costumes or elaborate sets. One Child Born was intended as a heartfelt tribute, and it was a very fine one indeed.
Ferber handled the often intricate Nyro piano style with power and grace, and managed to find all of the right emotional notes as a vocalist. The 12 songs included Nyro pop masterpieces like “Timer,” “Eli’s Coming,” “Emmie,” and “Stone Soul Picnic,” and an original Ferber composition called “One Child Born” that led into the song from which the project got its name, “And When I Die.” Ferber is called upon to do more than sit at the piano and sing however. Departing from the usual bio-play technique of having the subject do the talking, Ferber adeptly presents a series of characters whose lives have been impacted by Nyro’s music.These nine characters include a school girl, a family man, an open mic poet, a dude, a grandmother, and several others. The actress, who played her first Laura Nyro song at the piano at age 13, gives each one a distinct personality. Of course the characters would never come alive as they do without the efforts of the award-winning playwright Louis Greenstein. The play’s direction, by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, was simple and direct, exactly what the piece called for. Kudos to everyone for telling the story in a unique and uncompromising fashion.
One Child Born, which runs a little over an hour, was conceived by Greenstein after he saw Ferber perform in a local theater production. After a year-long developmental process at NYU’s musical theater conservatory, CAP21, a well-crafted theater piece emerged. One Child Born had it’s New York City debut at the Laurie Beechman Theatre in July of 2009. It has since enjoyed a a sold-out run at Joe’s Pub in New York, and two sold-out performances in Philadelphia. The show returns to New York City, and Joe’s Pub, for one performance on August 11. If you are going to be anywhere in the metropolitan area that night, you are unlikely to find a more entertaining evening. If past demand is any indication, I would advise you to get your tickets now, as the show always seems to sell out quickly.
To learn more about One Child Born: The Music of Laura Nyro, please visit The Laura Nyro Project.
Somewhere up in heaven, Laura Nyro is beaming with that enigmatic grin of hers.