SS Nirvana, a musical revue celebrating legendary jazz artists past and present of the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s, is a book show set on a ship docked on the Riviera in the past. Its subtitle is “It’s The Music of Your Life.“ The mistress of ceremonies is Madame, played with exuberant energy by Dhonna Goodale. During the show she name-drops many famous people she expects to see in her audience (Grace Kelly, Ernest Hemingway among others) and badgers her music arranger, Jerry (Jerry Weldon) who also plays the saxophone in the band. The opening is a long scene between the two of them during which she berates him for dating a young opera singer and neglecting her. Although Goodale’s timing is terrific and she is very funny doing the diva bit, it’s a bit long and we are eager to get to the music part of the show. The rest of the very talented band are Paul Odeh on piano, Paul Beaudry on bass, and Carmen Intorre on drums and percussion,
Madame talks about singing in Lionel Hampton’s band and belts out “Big Spender” and “Money Isn’t Everything.“ Goodale wears great flashy costumes and jewelry and does complete changes from top to bottom (except for her platinum wig although her headband changes) between each performer’s act. Each outfit is stunning and seems custom-made to highlight her bulky figure.
Among the guest performers in Madame’s show are Ella Fitzgerald (Nikita White,) Louis Armstrong (Charles Bartlett,) Johnny Hartman (JC III,) Anita O’Day (Joy Ryder,) Sarah Vaughn (Ghanniyya Green,) and Billy Eckstine (JaRon Eames,) each one of them costumed and coiffured as they appeared in public concerts.
Fitzgerald tells the familiar story of how she nervously sang instead of danced at the Apollo theater’s amateur night and was hired by Chick Webb to be his featured singer in his legendary band. White’s phrasing of the Ella standards, “Mr. Paganini” and “The Man I Love,” is perfect. She brings on the stage her singing partner, Louis Armstrong. Together White and Bartlett do a fun version of “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and then Bartlett joins the band. White continues with her Webb trademarks, “Savoy,” and “A Tisket A Tasket.”
Bartlett takes center stage and does a wild “Hello Dolly” with Madame as she struts around in another costume.
The next guest is Hartman. TC III doesn’t resemble Johnny Hartman and he doesn’t phrase like Hartman but he does do “Lush Life,” and “My One and Only Love” and the musicians do a great facsimile of Hartman’s lush arrangements. I think Hartman may be an anachronism because I don’t think he was, in his lifetime, an international success like the others.
After Madame’s next costume change, she introduces Ryder as Anita O’Day. The one white member of the cast, Ryder appears in a striking red outfit and swings through O’Day’s “Green Dolphin Street” and brings back TC III and Bartlett and the three of them impersonate Lambert, Hendricks & Ross doing a wild set, accurately recreating that great vocalese trio, showcasing each one of them individually and in concert.
Ghanniyya Green as Sarah Vaughn is an on-the-nose recreation of her. Green is able to recreate every phrasing and the full range and timber of Sassy’s vocal instrument. She also talks about how, as an 18 year old, she participated in the Apollo amateur night and was spotted by a bandleader. Alone, she sings “Love You Madly,” and then introduces the leader of that band, Billy Eckstine. Both Eames and Green have the physical appearance and vocal talent to recreate the great Eckstine-Vaughn duets. Eames does Eckstine’s big hits “I Apologize” and “My Foolish Heart” alone.
Madame ultimately calls the entire cast back on stage and they do roof –
raising renditions of “Just Friends,” and “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” each of the cast getting individual choruses as they strut across the Birdland stage.
SS Nirvana is certainly a lavish musical revue for the Birdland stage but the talent on stage doesn’t seem cramped. Every member of the cast and orchestra is an enjoyable treat to see and hear.
SS Nirvana repeats Saturday, December 8th at 5 PM at Birdland, 315 West 44 Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues. For reservations and information please call 646-373-3690.