- Written by Darryl Reilly
The Muppets, Stevie Wonder, Liza Minnelli and Bob Dylan were among the celebrities shown with Charles Aznavour during the illustrative slideshow that documented his life and career with many lovely black and white and color images. It precedes the delightful free-form cabaret tribute show Aznavour As Is that’s devised and performed by the venerable chanteuse Yvonne Constant and her sly musical director Russ Kassoff. Mr. Aznavour was the legendary singer and songwriter who was born in Paris to Armenian parents and who died in his sleep on October 1, 2018 at the age of 94. He had just returned from a tour of Japan and was to appear in France the next month.
“Emmenez Moi” was the stirring opening number performed by the French Ms. Constant as she majestically strode through Don’t Tell Mama’s cabaret room and onto the small stage. With her expressive enchanting singing, engaging playful presence, upswept flowing blonde hair and clad in a slinky glittering black sequined dress, Ms. Constant was a vision of star quality.
“For Me Formidable,” “Venice Blue,” “Yet, I Know” and “La Bohème” were all given ravishing renditions by Constant with the requisite “Yesterday, When I Was Young” tenderly done in the finale. In addition, she previously read Fred Ebb’s amusing lyrics for “You’ve Let Yourself Go.”
“Not only not good looking but he has an ugly voice!” was the harsh summation of Aznavour at the start of his career by a critic as recounted by Constant during her biographical recitation. Aznavour began to achieve success in the 1950’s when he started performing his own material that he composed and often wrote the lyrics for.
“He was never her lover! He was her assistant. She was very important in his life” said Constant of Aznavour’s mentor Édith Piaf before launching into “Non, je ne regrette rien” and “Milord.”
“What do you have in mind for me now?” coquettishly asked Constant of Mr. Kassoff as she sat on a stool across from him at the piano. The large, imposing and dryly jocular Kassoff is a prominent conductor, band leader and pianist who accompanied Liza Minnelli for 18 years. He made a marvelous foil and collaborator for Constant as their bantering was a key feature of the show’s pleasures.
Kassoff has his own ties to Aznavour having conducted his 1998 Broadway concerts at the Marriott Marquis. Years later they ran into each other in an elevator on their way to separate studios. “Charles, are you rehearsing here?” “I don’t rehearse, the band does!” Kassoff gorgeously played a medley of Aznavour tunes. “His beautiful simple melodies were so intertwined with emotion.”
A luminous theatrical dimension was sustained during the presentation due to technical director Jean-Pierre Perreaux’s outstanding contributions. The sound design conveyed the richness of Constant and Kassoff’s performances which were often accompanied by striking lighting that dramatically varied throughout.
Constant initially made her mark in the long-running 1958 Broadway production of the revue La Plume de Ma Tante for which she shared a Special Tony Award that was awarded to the cast. She appeared numerous times with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show when it was broadcast from New York City in the 1960’s. “I know Marilyn Maye says she was on more often. That’s because she followed him to Los Angeles, but I stayed HERE!”
She talked up Aznavour to Carson and that was instrumental in getting him on the show as he was relatively unknown in the United States at the time. Their friendship began in the 1950’s when they were bit-players in a French film. She went on to have an enduring career chiefly as a nightclub performer.
Aznavour As Is is, like its subject, a swirling blend of drama, comedy and feeling.
Yvonne Constant: “Aznavour As Is” (January 17, 25 and 31, 2019)
Don’t Tell Mama, 343 West 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-757-0788 or visit http://www.donttellmamanyc.com
Running time: 60 minutes with no intermission