By Robin Hirsch
As someone who has spent a considerable part of his life immersed in performance of every kind and surrounded by performers of every caliber, it has been an unalloyed treat to crawl out of the miserable hole we have all been stuck in, tiptoe into the Lucille Lortel Theatre, and bathe in two of the more than a dozen glorious shows that make up TINSEL, the Global Holiday Festival, curated by Michael Heitzman, with a delicious set by Vivienne Liu, delirious lighting by Amith Chandrashaker, and, not least, impeccable sound by William “Obie” O’Brien.
I was privileged to accompany Hannah Reimann to Jaime Lozano’s Canciones Para Navidad, which, with joy, wit and thrilling contributions from a “Familia” of wonderful singers and musicians, infused this holiday season with a magical Mexican spirit. Hannah has written movingly about this show. I hope to do as much justice to the show I saw two nights later, Ilene Reid’s equally rousing Sounds Around The House.
The title is an interesting guidepost. It is, specifically, the title of a song by Alec Wilder, equally comfortable as a classical composer, as a prolific jazz collaborator, and as an award-winning composer of popular songs. Enter Ilene Reid…
Ms. Reid herself is equally comfortable as a songwriter, as a cabaretist and as, in her word, a jazzer. Her musical journey has been instinctual. She was singing as a child and knew that’s where she wanted her life to take her. Her family was not exactly enthusiastic…
This is perhaps where the clouds come in and it is in confronting and dispersing those clouds that she found not just her way forward but the strength and wit to take on her own complicated history.
Her father and grandfather were Holocaust survivors. The rest of her paternal family perished, and indeed she is named (Ilene) after her grandmother, Ida, who did not survive. She herself is a mother (of 19 year-old twin boys) and it is perhaps the complex gift of marriage and motherhood which has allowed her to understand and eventually forgive the opposition her father, in particular, manifested to a musical career. She had some wonderful help along the way:
“So my voice teacher at the time was like, okay, here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to go to Indiana University because they have a great business school and they have a great music school. And that’s what I did. I got a degree in business but everything I did was music, music, music.”
When she graduated she was offered a substantial position at Macy’s, but, much to her father’s chagrin, took a job at Opryland for $200.00 a week. It was at Opryland that she found herself whisked into a wider musical world than simply musical theatre.
And that’s what comes through with joy and guts and laughter in her show. She has great musicians with her—Michael Mancini, Musical Director, at the piano; Doug Yowell on drums, Lee Traversa on bass, and a compelling recent addition, Allison Seidner, on cello. Her show comes replete with re-invigorated standards (The Nearness of You), with playful riffs on songs we think we know (Neil Young’s Heart of Gold) and songs she has written or co-written for her own musicals.
But what struck me most was her engagement, in the context of this holiday celebration, with her own Jewish heritage. With gusto, with delight, and, not least, with risk. In a song called Oil she takes on the extravaganza of Christmas—sleighbells, reindeer, carols, stars, indeed TINSEL—and holds up against it the teaspoon of oil which is the tiny fountainhead of Chanukah. It is passionate, witty, hilarious—and gutsy.
And on a personal level, I thank her for enlivening this celebration of the holidays with the exuberance, the passion, the engagement—and the guts—that in no small way pay a debt to a heritage I happen to share.
Mazel tov, Ilene!
Robin Hirsch is a former Oxford, Fulbright, and English Speaking Union Scholar, who has acted, directed, taught, published and produced on both sides of the Atlantic; but the titles of which he is proudest were self-bestowed: Minister of Culture, Wine Czar, and Dean of Faculty at the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village, which he owned and operated for more than 40 years, and which Mayor Ed Koch proclaimed “a culinary as well as a cultural landmark.”