The 59E59 Theaters comprise one of Manhattan’s most sophisticated and active theatrical venues. It is no surprise then, to find very unique offerings being showcased there for New York’s busy theatre scene. Such is certainly the case with the current limited run of The Girl I Left Behind Me, an unusual one-woman production starring the very vocally talented Jessica Walker in the theater’s third floor cabaret space. A British import, the piece fits in well with the theater’s current series of shows being presented under the banner of “Brits Off Broadway.” Written by Ms. Walker and Neil Bartlett (he also directs the work), the one-act show gives its audience a peek into the little-known world of assorted female vocalists who were known for singing as women while being dressed as men. It was a bit of devilish cross-gender trickery that popped up from time to time in the traditions of the English music halls, Vaudeville and beyond. It is a somewhat remote niche of musical performance that is certainly interesting to sample, but with its firmest roots in Great Britain, it may be a bit too remote for satisfactory general consumption on this side of the pond.
With that initial thought as a backdrop, I will be quick to point out that the trim and attractive Ms. Walker, smartly dressed in a gentleman’s tuxedo (with an assortment of gent’s hats close at hand) has certainly done her historical homework here in this collaboration with Mr. Bartlett. One senses they have brought considerable scholarship to this examination of a musical form that could easily have fallen through the cracks of the historical record for both the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Serious music students may well enjoy becoming familiar with the genre, and Walker’s rich mezzo-soprano voice is certainly up to the task of recreating the performances of the notable crossover vocalists celebrated in her performance. It should be noted that these women always performed in their own voices without any intention of deceiving the audience about their real gender, male attire not withstanding. One of these was Ella Shields. She was perhaps best known for performing the music hall favorite, “Burlington Bertie From Bow,” a song composed by her husband, and nicely performed here by Ms. Walker. Sadly, after performing that very song on August 3, 1952, Ella collapsed on the way to her dressing room and died that same evening.
We meet other masters (or should I say mistresses?) of the form, such as Vesta Tilley, Hetty King, Annie Hindle, the sister act of ‘Tempest and Sunshine,’ and yet another “Ella,” Miss Ella Wesner. The latter’s work was recognized with a performance of, “Down By the Old Mill Stream,” during which Walker encouraged the audience to join in on the repeated chorus. Of course there are touches of scandal in the book, as when Ella elopes to Paris to live openly there with her lover, a notorious New York actress named Josie Mansfield. The narrative points out that Ella must have taken secret satisfaction in singing a song like “Hi! Waiter,” in which we hear the lyric line:
“And all those who’ve never made love to a girl,
Well they don’t know the fun they have missed.”
Similarly, we learn about blues singer, Gladys Bentley, [no known relation to your author], who is described as, “…a six foot, cross-dressing cabaret queen and out bull-dagger,” in 1930’s Harlem. Walker celebrates this artist with a fine performance of “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home?” Gladys, by the way, was known for, “…her white satin tuxedo, her matching white topper and her girlfriends.” Among her cronies were Beatrice Lillie, Tallulah Bankhead, and the as yet undiscovered, Joan Crawford.
The aforementioned Vesta Tilley is acknowledged as the most successful of these ladies who preferred to perform as gents, and in her honor Walker does a nice turn with, “I’m the Idol of the Girls,” that has more than a touch of irony in its lyric. Meanwhile, as far back as 1864, Annie Hindle is credited with becoming the very first woman specializing in music hall male impersonations. Walker recognizes her contributions with a fine rendition of “Don’t Put your Foot on a Man When He’s Down.” Speaking of Hindle, she raised many an eyebrow in 1886 when she married her dresser, Miss Annie Ryan, in front of an unsuspecting minister who was later quoted in the New York Sun as saying, “The groom gave me her –I mean his—name as Charles Hindle, and he assured me that he was a man. I had no other course to pursue. The bride is a sensible girl, and she is of age. I believe they love each other, and that they will be happy.”
For all its interesting historical details, the show is primarily a musical event that is skillfully guided by Musical Director, Joe Atkins, accompanying on the eighty-eight.
In addition to the title song, the eclectic song list includes such other tunes as, “I Love the Ladies,” “Jolly Good Luck to the Girl Who Loves a Sailor,” “Angels Without Wings,” “Why Did I Kiss That Girl,” “Following in Father’s Footsteps,” “I’m Sowing All My Wild Oats,” and “I’ve Got the Time, I’ve Got the Place.” There are even brief snatches of classic opera from Der Rosenkavalier and The Marriage of Figaro, and it must be said that Walker’s elegant voice was well prepared for those segments. Occasional “dim the spotlight” cues might help guide a cautious audience to moments when applause is appropriate, and some of the numbers may seem a bit too obscure for contemporary tastes. But a clear audience favorite was the more familiar and beautifully sung, “After the Ball.” Interestingly, Charles K. Harris, the first man to ever earn a million dollars in royalties, composed that latter song, which is sung here in tribute to Miss Tilley. I imagine I was not alone in having that tune linger in my brain long “after the ball” was over.
THE GIRL I LEFT BEHIND ME continues through Sunday, May 19th, at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, New York, N.Y. Tickets are $25 ($17.50 for 59E59 Members). For tickets and information call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 or visit the website at http://www.59e59.org.