“Pennies from Heaven”
Performed, written and directed by Gregory Moore (baritone), performed and narrated by Steve Ross (piano) with Romano Viazzani (accordion)
Reviewed by: Michael Darvell
Reviewed: 2 October, 2007
Venue: Jermyn Street Theatre, London
Ten years ago this week the singer Arthur Tracy (aka “The Street Singer”) died in New York aged 98. He had come a long way in nearly a full century. Born Abba Avron Tracovutsky in the Ukraine, he emigrated to the US at age six with his family who settled in Philadelphia. After graduating in 1917 he studied to be an architect but soon left to take up singing. Moving to New York he appeared in vaudeville and was seen by a talent-scout and given a radio programme. He assumed his sobriquet of “The Street Singer” to avoid embarrassing his family. By the early-thirties he had appeared in a film with Bing Crosby, “The Big Broadcast of 1932”, and went on to make five more. He became a phenomenally successful singer in concerts and on record, selling some six million discs and just as many copies of the sheet music of his songs. He was a ‘bari-tenor’ who specialised in performing a repertoire of popular love songs and ballads of the day, material that would now be considered cheesy. But in 1930s’ America and for five years in Great Britain where he topped the bill at the London Palladium, these were the songs that audiences loved to hear.
His signature song was ‘Marta, rambling rose of the wildwood’ which he sang as he stepped on to the stage, as “The Street Singer” seemingly playing the accordion, an instrument which Tracy never actually learned to play. His material was unashamedly romantic but he sang some of the best popular songs ever written, from Romberg and Hammerstein’s ‘One alone’ and ‘Softly, as in a morning sunrise’ to Duke Ellington’s ‘Solitude’ through the Gershwins, Harry Warren and Al Dubin, Jerome Kern, Dorothy Fields and Otto Harbach to Noel Coward and Kurt Weill. He sang the material in a strong, earnest voice that was obviously very appealing to a lot of people.
Performing the songs here are writer and director Gregory Moore, an opera singer now concentrating on cabaret and concert work. He has a stentorian voice, much like Tracy and he puts across the material with warmth and feeling for the sentiments expressed in these numbers. He shares the singing with pianist and vocalist Steve Ross, an old hand at this sort of material. Far from being “The Street Singer” Steve Ross is more the sleek or chic singer and he puts a different spin on the numbers that is his familiar trademark. The accordion accompaniment by Romano Viazzani provides a neat background to the period in this most charming and civilised of entertainments. It’s not often you have the chance to enjoy these sorts of songs and here they are presented with passion and delight.
Tracy’s main period of popularity was during the 1930s and ’40s but, when Swing came in, his sort of songs went out of fashion. He toured here and in the US but eventually the work dried up and he made his money out of ‘real estate’ instead. However, many years later his 1937 recording of ‘Pennies from heaven’ was used in the 1981 US film of the same name (based on the Dennis Potter play) with Steve Martin and suddenly audiences wanted to know him again. The following year he appeared in cabaret in New York where Steve Ross saw him. Later on Tracy appeared in a Broadway show, “Social security”, and had a bit part in the film “Crossing Delancey”. When Tracy’s papers were filed at Lincoln Center, Ross was asked if there was a show in his story. The result is two hours of very best kind of musical nostalgia.
- Pennies from Heaven is at Jermyn Street Theatre, 2-7 October, Tues-Sat at 7.30 p.m., matinees Saturday & Sunday at 4 p.m. Tickets on 020 7287 2875
- Jermyn Street Theatre