Ann Morrison is far more than a strong voice and ingratiating personality. She is a smart performer.
When she was invited to create a Labor Day cabaret show for the New York club 54 Below focusing on the work of Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein, Morrison could have just put together a few songs and stories and called it a night.
But in “Now You Know — An Evening with Steve, Lenny and Annie,” she uses their music and (and mostly the lyrics) to tell the story of how she got involved in show business and why New Yorkers haven’t seen much of her since her Broadway debut in 1981 in Sondheim’s short-lived “Merrily We Roll Along.”
Understandably, that musical provides the core of the more than two dozen songs that she and supportive musical director and arranger Michael T. Sebastian use to draw us into her life and make us appreciate both the performer and the person all the more.
She provided a preview of the show Friday night at the sold-out Manatee Players’ new Kiwanis Studio Theatre (where she’ll return Sept. 6) after an earlier try-out at Venice Theatre.
Morrison grew up listening to cast albums and watching her mother direct college productions in Chicago. It seemed obvious that she would become a performer herself.
Each song naturally leads her through one part of her story, from her growing up years, to her apprenticeship at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre and eventually to Broadway, off-Broadway and London, before love and a child altered her career path. She came to Sarasota, where her parents retired, raised her son, and discovered a joy in working with the developmentally disabled through the Kaleidoscope program that she created.
The love she felt surround her from the performers was like nothing she had known on any stage, she says at one point.
Along the way, there are engaging renditions of “Gotta Have a Gimmick,” “One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man,” “I Can Cook Too” “Like it Was” and “Little Things You Do Together,” frequently interrupted to add rich and funny details. There are also tender versions of Bernstein’s “Lonely Town” and “Spring Will Come Again.”
At times, you want to hear more full-fledged singing, and because 54 Below calls for a 75-minute show, Morrison occasionally seems to be rushing through the story to get it all in. It doesn’t yet have the kind of natural pacing and timing that she usually brings to her shows. It might benefit from a slight trimming here and there. (A longer version would also be welcome.)
As it is, the show builds to an emotional realization that only makes the audience fall for her more.
For an encore, she performed her iconic cabaret number “Soliloquy at 5 a.m. in a Holiday Inn on I-70,” which is funny and delightful as always but may be more story than the audience needs after such a lovely evening.
But it’s also another way for the audience to better know this talented artist.
NOW YOU KNOW — AN EVENING WITH STEVE, LENNY AND ANNIE
Written and performed by Ann Morrison. Musical direction by Michael T. Sebastian. Reviewed Aug. 30, Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 3rd Ave., West, Bradenton. Next performances 8 p.m. Sept. 6. $15. 748-5875; manateeplayers.com; 7 p.m. Sept. 29, freeFall Theatre, 6099 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. 727.498.5205; freefalltheatre.com