First Nighter: Stephanie Blythe Does the Late, Great Kate Smith Proud
By David Finkel, Writer, Drama Critic, The Huffington Post
NOTE: Tickets for the May 12 Dayton Opera Star Gala at 3 p.m. on Sunday, May 12 — Mother’s Day — are on sale now at Ticket Center Stage (888) 224-3630.
Those are a few reasons why when the beloved Metropolitan Opera House fixture reprised her warmly thrilling “We’ll Meet Again — The Songs of Kate Smith” in the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room, I made sure I was there — wondering as I entered how I’d missed the 2011 appearance.
No matter. I was present this time and was rewarded with exactly what I came for, starting when Blythe greeted the audience with Kate Smith’s signature greeting (and the title of her 1933 flick), “Hello, everybody!” What I’d figured would be true was true: Blythe — not just because, at 43, she’s a big-boned woman like the beloved entertainer she honors — but because she possesses the same clarion voice Smith had and never allowed to diminish throughout her long career.
More than that, Blythe has the same friendly appeal and sense of humor Smith possessed. She exudes the same integrity and love, not only of the people for whom she’s singing, but of the country in which she’s singing. In another vocalist, this could come across as jingoistic. It doesn’t with Blythe, as it never did with Smith.
“What you’ve all been waiting for,” Blythe said as she introduced the first of her two beg-off encore numbers. Accompanied by totally-in-synch-with-her Craig Terry at the piano, she then hurled herself into “God Bless America” with every ounce of Smith’s fervor and much, too, of Smith’s coloration. This is the song, most ticket buyers knew, that Irving Berlin gave Smith in 1938 to introduce on her radio show. Instantly, she turned it into the land’s unofficial national anthem.
(What many in the adoring crowd may not have known is that having pulled the tune from his 1918 Yip Yip Yaphank score to retool for Smith, Berlin then channeled all royalties for it in perpetuity to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America — as did Smith.
“God Bless America,” which Smith sang thousands of times subsequently, is — for those who don’t know — one of three songs Smith made her own (and Blythe has now made hers). She opened with “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain,” which Smith sang on the March 17, 1931 debut of her first radio show. She ended the main section with “We’ll Meet Again.”
Incidentally, both “We’ll Meet Again” and “The White Cliffs of Dover,” which she delivered earlier in the set to sustained applause, are songs she sang after Vera Lynn established them as highly successful British World War II buck-up ditties. Not that Smith was a piker at introducing songs herself. Telling a good deal of Smith’s story — the 50-50 revenue deal with star-making manager Ted Collins, for example — Blythe noted that over her radio and television years Smith sent out something like 600 songs over the airwaves for the first time.
With those to choose from and the hundreds and hundreds of others Smith sang into the ’70s (see YouTube for the Beatles medley she shared with Cher and Tina Turner), Blythe only gets to a small percentage: 15. Nevertheless, in the 75-plus minutes that fly by, she makes each selection a vocal and emotional gem. Why wouldn’t she? One of the cherished Met regulars, she not only fills the gigundo house with her voice but fills the house’s seats with her reputation?
Her tribute to Kate Smith, which she’ll be touring later in the year, is an unqualified triumph — with an emphasis on the oomph.
Personal addendum: As I said, my father carried on about Smith’s Flying High scene-stealing but never mentioned the songs she sang. Nor did I ever think to ask what they were. Turns out there were two, and Blythe only sang one, the Ray Henderson-Buddy DeSylva-Lew Brown “Without Love.” When she did, I realized I was hearing for the first time a song my father heard for the first time over eighty years ago. What this meant to me I don’t think I can put into words.