The Music Lovers

"I love music so much, I can't even believe it," Jennifer Pace exclaimed during a recent Don't Tell Mama show. Well, she may have found it hard to believe, but there was no way the audience could mistake that love. There was the appreciation she showed her unassuming father, Gary Pace, at the piano. There were the frequent references to grandfather Sal Pace, who played clarinet all over Manhattan with many a big jazz name not many decades back. Mostly, there was the heart, soul, and pogo-stick joy with which she infused everything she sang and said.

As those who know her piano-bar outings or those who've seen her fronting rock bands or singing wherever management would turn a spotlight her way have already noticed, she's a natural. Music is in her DNA; it must hum through her genomes. She's got and may have had since she was on pabulum what other performers spend years striving for or maybe even neglect: spontaneity. She's so completely at ease that patrons feel comfortable in her presence. More than that, they're eager for whatever she'll do, because they realize she's incapable of making a false move, of taking a false step.

Looking in her red-and-black ensemble like Bette Midler superimposed on Bernadette Peters, she hit stage raring to go and let nothing get in her way. As she chanted with verve, she used every inch of space. (Director Lennie Watts undoubtedly encouraged the ground-covering.) She was completely comfortable kibitzing with the crowd. Never rambling on, she responded with good cheer and a fast tongue to what was happening at any given moment.

Pace has a strong, malleable voice to which she smilingly gives free rein on songs as old as 1931's "Little Girl Blue" and 1932's "Spring Is Here" (both Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers) and 1933's "You're My Thrill" (Jay Gorney-Sidney Clare). And for songs as new as 1995, she threw in Andrew Lippa's "Every Goodbye Is Hello," a number that gave her the set's title. As she roved through the intervening years, she underscored her innate ability to handle just about any musical idiom. Incidentally, she started with "I Hear Music" (Frank Loesser-Burton Lane), which, when she toots it, sounds like raucous autobiography.

Along the way, Pace bobbled a few notes and screwed up a few lyrics ("Little Girl Blue" wasn't written precisely as she thinks it was), which means she has room for improvement—about two inches worth of room.

As if further proof were needed that a musical family is a leg up for any performer, along came Tim Sullivan to Danny's Skylight Room for a one-niter just a few weeks back. A guy with a happy-go-lucky air about him, he was raised with KT Sullivan, Heather Sullivan—well, with all those Boggy Depot, Oklahoma Sullivans who decided not to confine their talents to one state, but to spread them around.

Unlike his New York-based sisters, however, Tim decided, as he formed a few bands and traveled on the far side of the United States map, that he'd be a country artist and sing his own country songs. That decision led him to put together "Diary of a Songwriter," a two-hour work in which he talks about his commitment to songwriting and, despite career seesawing, the rewards commitment has brought him.

Whether "Diary of a Songwriter" is a cabaret act or a theatre piece can be decided by anybody out there who likes tossing coins. Whatever category comes up, Sullivan's outing is smart and appealingly low-key. The lad, who shares the family good looks, sang and warbled about everything that brought him to where and what he is today: a happily married father who likes recounting motley experiences in simple songs. A-singin' and a-strummin', the guy stayed on too long, however, to the point where an audience member could start wondering whether anyone can be so relentlessly humble.

There's also a slight problem with the songwriting. "As easy as that," he says about it. But is songwriting as easy as that? For Sullivan, yes, because he sticks to rhymed couplets and straightforward sentiments. But as he loped along, the songs began sounding repetitive. If Sullivan were to realize that putting a melody and lyric together sometimes calls for more than a few swift rhymes, he wouldn't let himself off the hook with weaker ditties like the blah wedding song he concocted for some friends.

Until the been-here-heard-that feeling kicked in, Sullivan's channeling of Will Rogers' affability and his use of a voice an audience can cozy up to kept him percolating. There were a half-dozen numbers that had what it takes. Perhaps he was funniest on "Cowboy Rap," a song that led into one of his best, though sorriest, tales. By the time he'd finished the sad saga about a Nashville rip-off, he'd shed dark light on the country music capital. It's not a place, it would seem, where the current Durango, Colorado citizen will be hanging his cowboy hat again anytime soon.

Taking a break from Uptown Express just before he took a bigger break by leaving Manhattan for California, Joey Landwehr did his friend Christopher Jackson a favor by performing at Don't Tell Mama in Jackson's song cycle, "The Boy Next Door."

The narrative concerns a gay man's search for love. That the idea is so old it's bearded wouldn't have been a terminal problem had Jackson found anything new to say. He hasn't. Much of what he does offer about his woebegone protagonist isn't only stale, it's often embarrassing. As the luckless hero goes from one unfortunate liaison to the next through the age of AIDS, he confides his plight in some maudlin tunes and, in two corny instances, even confesses he's in love with Keanu Reeves and Walt Disney's Aladdin. Honest to Pete!

Landwehr recounted the musical history with admirable conviction while Jackson, at the piano, beamed proud grins. He's owed thanks for rhyming "sweater" with "Mehta," and for the effort he's put in. But that's mostly it for the plus column.

Anne Kerry Ford was congratulated a while ago by my colleague John Hoglund when she unfurled her Irving Berlin program at Judy's Chelsea. The following night she tributed Kurt Weill, and it was my turn to bask. By the time she'd finished, she'd provided evidence that hers is no cursory scan of the Weill canon (with lyricists Bertolt Brecht, Ira Gershwin, Ogden Nash, Maxwell Anderson, Alan Jay Lerner, or Paul Green). Looking radiant, she emoted radiantly as well during, among others, "It Never Was You," "My Ship," and "Pirate Jenny." On a scale of roses, she warrants at least eight.