Laura Nyro’s legacy lives on in Oberon show
CAMBRIDGE — There's no such thing as a casual Laura Nyro fan. An archetypal singer-songwriter with a cult following, she tends to inspire deep devotion among admirers, many of whom still remember when and where they first heard her music.
Others had hits with Nyro's songs in the late 1960s and early '70s — the 5th Dimension immortalized "Stoned Soul Picnic" and "Wedding Bell Blues," and Barbra Streisand did the same with "Stoney End" — but Nyro remains the definitive interpreter of her own work, with a legacy still casting a long shadow over popular music.
That's the premise of Kate Ferber's heartfelt if somewhat thin homage, playing at the American Repertory Theater's Oberon venue through Dec. 10. "One Child Born: The Music of Laura Nyro" is not a jukebox musical, mercifully, but instead an exploration of the communion between Nyro and her faithful.
The 65-minute cabaret show, which Ferber co-wrote with Louis Greenstein, intersperses performances of Nyro's songs with testimonials Ferber has gathered from "Nyrotics," as she calls the artist's most fervent fans (herself among them). Through 10 characters, the New York-based singer-songwriter asserts that Nyro's music has transcended generations, skin color, and social status.
At Tuesday's opening-night performance, Ferber made it clear she is not impersonating Nyro, who was 49 when she died of ovarian cancer in 1997. She's finding her own place in these songs. Nyro's compositions, marked by rhythmic detours and vocal gymnastics, aren't easy to play or sing, but Ferber has mastered both. Alone at a piano topped with a single rose in a jar, she let loose on the keys with ease and confidence.
And man, how Ferber sings. Scratch that: She howls, she swoops, she trills, she burrows into her lower register. Adrienne Campbell-Holt's streamlined direction keeps Ferber mostly stationary at the piano but occasionally roaming the stage to address the audience.
Ferber inhabits her characters with little more than shifts in her accent, volume, and body language. We hear from a young bro in a backward baseball cap, who tells us how a gay friend is schooling him in ways to pick up the ladies. His secret weapon? Put the needle on Nyro's "New York Tendaberry," her third album. "It's like ear Viagra for chicks!" the bro crows.
With a scarf wrapped around her head, the kindly Russian immigrant remembers how she learned English from listening to Nyro's music. There was just one problem: Nyro was fond of making up words, a testament to her love of language. When she went to the market, the vendor was confused when she asked for "one pint of tendaberry."
"I talked to her on the phone," another man boasts of the time he interviewed Nyro for his school newspaper in the '80s. He guessed she would someday enter the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, to which Nyro purred, "That would be groovy." (He was right: Nyro was inducted in 2012.)
Oddly, "One Child Born" is a slim representation of Nyro's catalog. Ferber sticks almost exclusively to Nyro's first three albums (heavy on "Eli and the Thirteenth Confession"). Granted, they bore the bulk of Nyro's classics: "Wedding Bell Blues," "Sweet Blindness," "Stoned Soul Picnic," "Eli's Comin'," "Save the Country," and "And When I Die," all of which Ferber performs.
But by the end of the performance, you realize the show is as much about its creator as the woman who inspired it. Ferber confesses that she's not just channeling Nyro anymore; she has been inspired to do something else entirely.
"The only way I want to be like Laura," Ferber says, "is I want to be myself."
ONE CHILD BORN:
The Music of Laura Nyro
Co-written by Louis Greenstein and Kate Ferber. Directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt. Presented by American Repertory Theater. At Oberon, Cambridge, through Dec. 10. Tickets start at $25. 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org