Let Us Now Praise Mary Testa

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Mary Testa
Mary Testa

New York City is so chock-full of talent that it appears impossible for every outstanding performer to become a household name. Many of the abundantly gifted become instantly recognized names highly valued in the theater community, however.

One about whom you never hear anything but outpourings of praise is Mary Testa. Sure, she’s done her share of movie and television stints, but it’s as a theater performer that she’s made her biggest mark. Twice nominated for the Tony (42nd Street and the 1998 On the Town revival), she’s currently in Wicked.

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That hardly fills in her accomplishments. Composer-lyricist Michael John LaChiusa, who knows a good thing when he sees it and wants it for his canon, likes to write for her. She headlined his first-rate Queen of the Mist, was second lead to Audra McDonald in his Marie Christine and was one of the forces in his First Lady Suite. William Finn, another pillar in the contemporary temple of composer-lyricists, has tapped Testa for In Trousers, Infinite Joy and A New Brain.

She’s a belter, but with emotional heft behind her pipes. Yet she also enhances straight roles, as, for instance, she did in String of Pearls (2003). Her versatility is surely why at the 57th Drama Desk Awards event, she was recognized for her contributions to Broadway and off-Broadway. She might also have been cited for her availability on charity nights. Hardly one goes by in which she isn’t performing.

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Anyone reading this far has probably figured out that, along with thousands of others who may or may not know her name, I’m a big fan. Am I still laughing at, and with, Testa for her turn in the 2009 revival of Guys and Dolls? You know I am. Am I still tickled by what she and Jackie Hoffman (there’s a combo for you!) tossed off as unlikely goddesses in Xanadu (2007)? You bet I am.

I think Mary Testa is great. And now I think she’s even greater, thanks to a new project between her and orchestrator-arranger Michael Starobin, who deserves his own column for the work he’s done over the last three decades.

Mary Testa and Michael Starobin's album Have Faith
Mary Testa and Michael Starobin’s Have Faith

Have Faith is a Testa-Starobin concept album (Ghostlight, $14.99), the likes of which you’ve never heard — or perhaps I should say, the likes of which I’ve never heard. My guess is that no small contingent of listeners will agree with me.

As the title suggests, the songs she selects and arranged with Starobin — whose atmospheric sequencing between selections is mesmerizing — deal with belief and doubt. The assumption has to be that these concerns are close to her heart, and close to Starobin’s as well. It’s not a wide-ranging and profound undertaking guaranteed to cause instant exhilaration in hordes of others.

But Have Faith is exhilarating, nonetheless, and the cause is, once again in large part, Testa’s voice. She’s subtle about it. She’s supple with it. Sometimes she uses her chest voice for dramatic effect. Sometimes she employs her head voice, and often when she does, it’s for ironic sweetness. Sometimes, she puts on a character voice for change-of-pace effect.

Moreover, she’s clearly thought about every lyric. A case in point is her arch-eyebrowed emphasis on the word “loaned” in this song by Ray Henderson, Buddy De Sylva and Lew Brown:

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The sweet things in life to you were just loaned.
So how can you lose what you’ve never owned?

Life is Just a Bowl of Cherries,” of course, and that 1920s standard not only opens the CD but also informs the photography on its packaging photography. Elsewhere she croons Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “If I Loved You,” Brian Wilson’s “God Only Knows” and closes with Leonard Cohen’s stinging “Hallelujah.” She introduces Starobin’s setting of William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29: “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes….”

But most of the inclusions are from contemprary writers like LaChiusa and Finn, who have inspired her as much as she’s inspired them. She makes more memorable LaChiusa’s already memorable “What If”:

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What if I’m laid off from my job?
What if my phone bill can’t be paid…?
What if world peace is just a crock…?

She applies the same standards to Finn’s “Change.” She maximizes the bite and grit in Jill Sobule’s gritty, biting “Heroes” and “Soldiers of Christ.”

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I need to mention that there’s no way to underestimate Starobin’s contributions to this darkly baroque and indisputably incomparable project that some, perhaps, will dismiss as over-the top. Not me. I believe that excess is part of their carefully deliberated intention. For example, he uses a wide array of instruments — from violin, viola and cello to accordion and tuba. He plays the tuba himself on the CD and piano for the Prince-Wendy Melvoin-Lisa Coleman “Sometimes It Snow is April” and “Hallelujah.” Pay attention to the dissonant notes he drops into the former. They’re inspired. On the Steven Tyler-Richie Supa-Glen Ballard “Pink,” Starobin inserts humor, tuba-wise.

It’s not entirely unusual for concept albums to transfer to the stage. Have Faith should be — and soonest. There’s no doubt Testa could turn an auditory coup de theatre into a tour de force. I want to see it as much as, or maybe even more than, Testa’s Mama Rose. Yes, the part was written for Ethel Merman, but if you ask me, it was written for Testa, too.

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