By MARILYN LESTER**** There’s a double-edged poignancy to Andrea Bell Wolff’s Prisoner of Love. The first is that the show’s original music director was Barry Levitt, who unexpectedly passed away in September, two days before their scheduled second performance of a planned set of four nights. The second is in the material itself. Prisoner of Love is ultimately a complete story in and of itself. It’s about the ups and plenty of downs of a single girl’s quest for a man to love her. The narrative, kept to a wise minimum of just enough, plus the superb, eclectic music choices, are part of the unfolding of the tale; but, it’s Wolff herself who puts the cherry on the sundae. Her delivery of the numbers with plenty of flair emphasizes the insightful storytelling aspects of the lyrics.
Her opening was a very dramatic “Colored Lights” (John Kander/Fred Ebb), which more than set the stage for the kaleidoscopic trip to come. The scene setting was underscored by the title song written by director Peter Napolitano and Barry Levitt. Wolff’s voice is on the girlish side, making her interpretation of “I Think That He Likes Me” (Michael Kooman/Christopher Dimond) all the more accessible. (With more cynical numbers later in the show, she controls that aspect of her vocalizations by hitting lower registers.) From expectation, Wolff takes us through the various stages of a relationship, travelling from “If I Take You Home Tonight” (Paul McCartney) to harsh realities. Her take on “It’s a Man’s World” (James Brown/Betty Jean Newsome) revealed a smart twist on the lyric, shifting the point of view to the feminine, just by a clever emphasis of words.
Much of Prisoner of Love was a look into the dark side of relationships. That scoundrel, the cheating man, appeared in several numbers, including “Guess Who I Saw Today” (Murray Grand/Elisse Boyd), “Other Lady” (Ellen Weston/Lesley Gore) and the searing “Two Black Cadillacs” (Carrie Underwood/Hillary Lindsey/Josh Kear). A strange kind of female empowerment was captured in “Miss Otis Regrets (She’s Unable to Lunch Today)” (Cole Porter) and a driving “If You Hadn’t But You Did” (Jule Styne/Adolph Green/Betty Comden). So much angst, but Wolff amazingly keeps the energy from going low with a winning personality, comedic quips and a natural ability for clever interpretation. It all turns out right in the end, as Wolff reveals she did find her dream man and has been in a 34-year marriage with him. Her encore, “This Is My Life” (“La Vita”) (Bruno Canfora/Antonio Amurri/Norman Newell) was an affirmation that life is good, no matter what.
A major asset of Prisoner of Love is director Peter Napolitano, who worked closely with Wolff to shape this sophisticated and very satisfying show. Another asset was a crew of A-list musicians who played a tight groove with masterful precision. Music director and pianist was Matthew Martin Ward, with bassist Boots Maleson and drummer Howie Gordon. Adding a violin, played by Rob Thomas, proved an excellent choice to add texture and an emotive quality to the music.
Prisoner of Love played at Don’t Tell Mama in NYC on November 11, 2017 at 5:30 PM. The show will be presented as part of the annual Winter Rhythms at Urban Stages on Dec. 16, 2017. Tickets are available by clicking here.