Cole, Presley and Garland grace the Playhouse stage — no DeLorean required
“Unforgettable.” The greatest hit of Nat King Cole’s immortal career. The magic came from the way he sang it. The warmth he imbued in each word, the trace of a smile after each phrase. In a soothing baritone voice he captured the meaning and longing of the word unforgettable better than any dictionary could.
It’s why his music endured.
The same can be said for the other titans of midcentury America, including Elvis Presley and Judy Garland. Their music tackles themes so universal that it continues to resonate. You can play “Jailhouse Rock” through a Bluetooth speaker while sipping a double frappemochachino, and the world still makes sense.
But as Michael and Angela Ingersoll will tell you, there’s no substitution for a live performance. That’s why the husband-and-wife team started Artists Lounge Live, a series of professional tribute performances featuring the music of stars from Aretha Franklin to Bobby Darin.
Coming soon to the Playhouse @ Westport: Brandon Bennett performing the scandalous hits of Elvis Presley, Evan Tyrone Martin singing the sweet sounds of Nat King Cole and Angela Ingersoll belting to the rafters like Judy Garland.
This won’t be like watching a cover band from down the street step through some Eagles tunes. These three artists carry hefty pedigrees.
Angela Ingersoll is a veteran of the Chicago theater scene. Her credits are too long to list, but her performance as Judy Garland in “End of the Rainbow,” a musical about Garland’s final years, earned her recognition from the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune.
Martin is a newer face in the same city, but he’s already landed leading roles in “Rent,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Hair” and “The Color Purple.”
And Bennett was named an “ultimate Elvis tribute artist” by Elvis Presley Enterprises at Graceland. For five years he starred in the Chicago run of the Tony Award-winning musical “Million Dollar Quartet.”
Paul Emery, president and programming director for the Playhouse @ Westport, brings the Chicago-based series to St. Louis starting Thursday. He’s aware of the stigma surrounding the genre.
“There are a lot of different tribute shows out there,” Emery says. “A large percentage of it is not great and fairly cheesy.”
The Ingersolls founded Artists Lounge Live to be something different. Both loved performing midcentury classics in jukebox musicals — enough to want to distill the experience for the concert stage. That meant recruiting talent from the theater community.
That’s one of two distinctions the Ingersolls make. The second — one echoed by Bennett and Martin — is that these performers are not impersonators.
“I certainly don’t go up onstage and say, ‘Hello, my name is Judy Garland,’” Angela Ingersoll says. “I go onstage and say, ‘Hello my name is Angela Ingersoll, and my favorite artist is Judy Garland.’”
During each number, the performer faithfully executes the original sound. But in between songs, they break the illusion and speak to the cultural and personal significance of the artist.
“We talk about what was happening in America when this music was being made,” Michael Ingersoll says. “We talk about what was happening in the artist’s life that informs the music as it was being made, presented and toured. And we also talk about how our singer (came) to love and embrace that artist’s catalog.”
It’s less a history lesson and more like an old friend showing you a cherished record.
“The best compliment I think I ever got about it is that people feel like they’re sitting in their living room, and we’re just having fun together,” Bennett says. “It’s an intimate, personal experience.”
It’s the sincerity of the performance that wraps Angela Ingersoll up just as much as the audience.
“It’s hard for me to go back and do a play where I’m supposed to wear a costume and not look directly at the audience,” she says.
The performers may not try to fool the audience, but they sure do blur the line.
Angela has nailed Garland’s vibrato and has the vocal chops to fill a music hall. While few can ever capture Cole’s natural charisma, Martin’s warm voice can still touch the audience.
“A lot of his character exists in the way that he sings his songs,” Martin says. “It was really important for me to find the color and tone and richness of his sound.”
Bennett has a natural Southern drawl that he blends with that famous Elvis inflection. He’s also got the moves: wide stance and hip gyrations that raised eyebrows in the King’s time but are nostalgic today.
All three artists agree — what makes this music so enduring are its universal themes: dreams, independence — and the way they seem to grow with the audience. “Can’t Help Falling in Love” could inspire a 16-year-old to brave the dance floor at prom, but to a 60-year-old, its mellow notes touch something much more permanent.
At times, the music seemed to grow with the artist.
“‘Over the Rainbow’ is the greatest existential poem, I think, of the 20th century,” Angela Ingersoll says. “Hearing Judy sing it throughout her life, we can all identify with the story of self-actualization — ‘Why oh why can’t I?’ She sings it as a child, and it’s full of hope. But when she’s singing it in the ’60s, it’s full of female empowerment: ‘Who am I?’ ‘How am I going to do it one more day?’”
Artists Lounge Live is not just about listening to the music. It’s about capturing the same energy the songs had when they were released, not through speakers and a touchscreen but right there in front of you.
“There are so many elements of America that are disposable,” Michael Ingersoll says. “We’re always onto the next news cycle, the next app, the next product. When we pay tribute to the artists that came before us, we say that they matter.”