By Mark Dundas Wood
"Pia Zadora – Back Again and Standing Tall"
The Metropolitan Room – February 7-10
Pia Zadora is a trouper. On the eve of the recent snowstorm, playing to a small audience, she kept her energy level high, as though playing to a packed house. She gave special attention to each occupied table—at one point circulating through the room to bestow individual hellos. She was upbeat and likeable.
At the very top of the show, a short video clip was shown of Frank Sinatra singing Zadora’s praises. Zadora was Sinatra’s opening act in the early 1990s, when she toured with him and Don Rickles. And the Sinatra legacy seems to have followed her all the way to 2013. Zadora sang a number of songs associated with the late star, including "The Lady Is a Tramp" (Rodgers & Hart) and "All of Me" (Gerald Marks, Seymour Simons). On "Tramp" she even used her mentor’s altered lyrics about not being like "the rest of those broads." Vinnie Falcone, one of Sinatra’s pianists and music directors, performed identical duties for Zadora—and he seemed to have dusted off and brought along Frank’s old charts. Keyboardist Ned Ginsburg filled in for the lush Sinatra string section with his synthesized approximations.
Many of us will allow that Pia Zadora studied with the Best. However, she did so when the Best was not exactly at his best. Also, the venues that she and Sinatra played in the latter years of his career were a far cry from the intimate Metropolitan Room, where Zadora found herself booked this winter. Yes, Sinatra was known as the quintessential saloon singer, but by the 1990s anything remotely resembling a saloon had long since given way to arenas and pavilions.
Zadora has a voice that, I would gauge, is at least as steady and true as Sinatra’s back when she appeared with him two decades or so ago (and probably when I saw him in the late 1970s). But much of the repertoire in her show—the up-tempo, swinging "Vegas" stuff—requires her to either bark or whisper and then rely on souped-up amplification to get through the big money notes in the final bars.
It’s not as though she has a shoddy or particularly weak voice. When she sang Kander and Ebb’s "Maybe This Time," resonant, warm and quite pleasant tones emerged. Another song that served her well was Ron Miller and Orlando Murden’s "For Once in My Life"—except at the end, when she hollered. But even when she was not technically perfect on those two numbers, they seemed to allow her to connect with listeners better than she did throughout the rest of the hour. The two songs have similar themes, or, rather, the second extends the theme of the first. "Maybe This Time" is about romantic high hopes; "For Once in My Life" is about romantic hopes that have been—as if by a miracle—fulfilled. When Zadora performed these selections, she made it clear she was singing about her police-officer husband—a seemingly amiable and attentive gentleman who traveled with her and, after the show, made sure that everyone who wanted to enjoy a personal hello with her did so. What made both songs work was that they clearly meant something to the singer—something that seemed crucial to share with her listeners.
I truly hope that Zadora can find a way to use what worked in those numbers to rethink her whole approach to club singing—especially if she is going to continue performing in an up-close-and personal setting like the Metropolitan Room. It’s time to throw away the hackneyed jokes and patter that probably earned only polite chuckles in 1965 and instead communicate something more about who she is—and about what she knows that others of us maybe don’t.
Zadora has done some living. She worked as a child actor with such forces of nature as Tallulah Bankhead and Zero Mostel. She told us a little about that, in passing, during the Metropolitan Room show. But what did those figures mean to her when she was an impressionable child? Were they kindly? Distant? Intimidating? She noted that she’s been married several times, but she said it as a self-deprecating joke. Are there songs that could convey how she weathered and rebounded from romantic disappointment? Her public persona during the 1980s served as a punch line for late-night talk show hosts, and she won not Oscars but rather "Razzies," for her unsuccessful film performances. Did that kind of ridicule take its toll or did she let it all roll off her back? If the latter, where did she find such chutzpah?
I’m not suggesting that she turn the cabaret stage into a confessional or a therapist’s office. She may not even want to make the show explicitly autobiographical. But if she addressed some of those issues with some candor, true wit, and feeling—even if she only used them as emotional subtext while she sang— people likely wouldn’t care that she doesn’t possess the pristine tones of Barbara Cook on Broadway in the late 1950s. Cook once said, "When another human being is willing to stand onstage and let you in, the power of it is extraordinary." Next time Zadora comes to New York, I hope she’ll lose the 5-piece band and the Sinatra-esque accoutrements, that she’ll perform only with a pianist/musical director (maybe one who has never set foot in Caesar’s Palace) and that she’ll have prepared with a writer and director who can help Pia zero in on Pia. As for repertoire, she can take advantage of the eclecticism that is a hallmark of contemporary cabaret. Did she ever consider including a folk song? Maybe a lullaby?
The Chairman of the Board stepped down long ago. Certainly he’d want his protégé to do it Her Way, wouldn’t he?