Mews Small has been acting and singing most of her life on Broadway, in television productions and in major film releases like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
and Man On The Moon.
But Mews recently released her first CD, and her choices are interesting. Having grown up in New York City, she has chosen to re-examine the sheet music of popular and stage music from the mid-1800’s to the 1940’s that her grandmother saved throughout her lifetime obviously implying that the love of music runs in the family. A soprano who has learned a thing or two about voice projection, Small covers ten songs that alternate wink-of-the-eye irony, now that we can look back in knowledge of a half century later, and a sincere fondness for songs of generations past that offer unabashed directness of emotion and simplicity of melody. In the process, we are reminded of times when American culture possessed less ambiguity and apparently little self-awareness for double meanings.
Some of the songs have become standards of sorts, like "I’ll See You In My Dreams." But then other songs on Pearl Street Garage #1
represent true re-discoveries, like Jimmy McHugh’s swelling of war-time emotion on "Comin’ In On A Wing And A Prayer." The writer of "Let’s Get Lost" and "Don’t Blame Me," it turns out, contributed to the war effort through his talents as a songwriter by setting up the story of a pilot who lands his one-good-wing plane ("What a shot!/What a sight!/They really hit/The target tonight") through divine intervention in a song that verges on Dixieland with a hi-hat backbeat before pulling back from the heights of emotion.
Then there’s the Tin Pan Alley tear-jerker of "Hello Central, Give Me Heaven," written in 1901, when telephone calls were manually connected. Mews sings in her little-girl-like soprano, suggesting the emotional set-up on the stage ("I’m so sad and lonely/Such a tearful little child/Since dear Mama’s gone to heaven/Papa darling you’ve not smiled") as she tries to utilize the Bell Systems to contact her mother behind the celestian gates. Sure enough, the switchboard operator, represented in a lower range and with a more forceful voice, puts through the desolate girl’s call to the "steps of heaven" ("I will answer/Just to please her/Yes dear heart/I’ll soon come home./Kiss me Mama/Kiss your darling/Through the telephone"). Thus, the girl’s wish for blessed communication comes true not through a spiritualist like John Edwards but through the miracle of telephonic plugs and wires and switches. Just as entertaining is the unrestrained fun that Mew has with "Hand Me Down My Walking Cane" (from 1865), with lyrics like "Hand me down /My bottle of corn/’Cause gonna get drunk/Just as sure as I’m born/’Til all of my sins/Are taken away." They don’t write songs like that anymore.
Piano player Phil Small, Mews’ nephew, arranged the accompaniment of The Small Band. The character of the arrangements contribute to the success of the songs that Mews imbues with dynamic build-up and suspense as she invests the music’s narratives with her own interpretations, as if she were delivering them to audiences of the songwriters’ generations. "You’ve Got To See Mama Every Night" combines the force and sweetness of her voice to suggest the progression from coquetry to ribaldry. "I’ll See You In My Dreams" is sung at a slower than usual tempo, and Phil Small’s arrangement parallels the melody with gliding quarter-note harmony. One song, though, is reinterpreted. "Dark Eyes," based upon the Russian folk song, contains the minor-key drama of flamenco dancing, eventually leading into an extended acoustic guitar section.
The news about Mews is that after years of work in visual media, she has moved into audio recordings that, instead of summarizing the songs of her thirty years in acting, delight in the songs of innocence, orneriness and belief from America’s more uncomplicated past.