Review–Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis, Jr. in “Up, Up and Away, a Musical Fable,” Theater at Westbury, Long Island, June 9, 2016
by Robert-Allan Arno
This is the type of “review” which can be deemed as subjective and objective. Not only am I the biographer of The Original 5th Dimension and its founder, LaMonte McLemore, but the Theater at Westbury, once known as Westbury Music Fair, was sacred home for the many times I had seen the original quintet perform while I grew up on Long Island. And so as the evening’s overture played, I sighed, “Now, this is full-circle!” then wondered quickly, “Has the beautiful balloon finally landed?” About the latter, no possible way. If anything, it soars higher than ever. Marilyn McCoo remains as gorgeous as her legendary octaves do; Billy Davis, Jr. is our true Gentleman of Soul. Their Broadway-like presentation, “Up, Up and Away, A Musical Fable” (which I keep accidentally calling “a musical fantasy!”) is a revelation even for someone like myself. And by the way, “fantasy” fits this bill–you have to keep pinching yourself that what you’re seeing and hearing is a reality. That McCoo-Davis individually collective sound, the moves, the back-up singers, the top-flight band (led by Darrell Alston) are all so exquisitely pristine yet astute that we get to see the movies of our minds…live!
From the first strains of their signature “Up-Up and Away” to the last of “Let the Sunshine In” and its “Aquarius” mash-up mate, we’re taken on one heart-tugging, joyful and exhilarating ride. Marilyn and Billy commence with a “Where or When” sampler through everything from Billy’s Blues roots, Marilyn’s torch inclinations, “Solid Gold” days, “Showboat” and “Dreamgirls,” in a way that’s seamlessly autobiographical. It’s clear that both McCoo and Davis were virtual child prodigies who made their dreams including Broadway stints and TV series, come true. “You Don’t Have to be a Star,” baby, but MarBill make us feel like special revelers invited to their party as they keep intensifying their show, bringing us in with their scripted and seemingly off-the-cuff patter. The hits just keep coming, and many in the audience were singing along, hooting n’ hollering, and getting down with “Stoned Soul/Sweet Blindness” unadulterated fun, “Last Night I Didn’t Get to Sleep” smooth grooves, “Wedding Bell Blues” flirty moves, and “Save the Country” verve.
How can Marilyn’s “Never My Love” surpass that famed moment from “The 5th Dimension–Live” album? She made it happen and it stopped the show with a protracted standing O. How can Billy’s “The Worst that Could Happen” redefine what was already so full-throttle? He sure did, stopping the show again with another grand ovation. And then there’s “MacArthur Park.” As we immediately recall the beloved Ron Townson’s in-concert lead, Billy graciously does so too, singing in his deeper tones, diction emphatic…we behold the measure of a man who gives homage by inhabiting a song, finding its richest subtext. Of course, so does La McCoo who offers the Jimmy Webb masterpiece her intricately syncopated back-ups in solidarity, along with three talented singers (Cydney Davis, Cynthia Bass and choreographer as well, Andre Carthen). Breathtaking is their take on the cake…in the rain, as a “fade to black” gives us a chance to catch our breath during intermission.
A Beatles medley opens the second act with so many twists and turns to “musically stretch out,” I will leave it as a surprise when you get to see this production. And speaking of “The Fab 4,” did you know The 5th Dimension was sometimes known as “The Black Beatles?” According to group founder McLemore, “Like the Beatles, all our fans–regardless of race–knew both the first and last names of each of the original members of The 5th Dimension.” Furthermore, this McCoo-Davis 2016 retrospective on “The Fab 5,” in no way diminishes Ms. LaRue and The current 5th Dimension, for Florence as well as LaMonte and Ron are mentioned warmly and seen on-screen via select photos, throughout the show. Indeed, The 5th Dimension remains family. It should be noted that Ms. McCoo, Mr. Davis and their seminal quintet became leading pop cultural figures by example. As such, their harmonious sound and image united diverse people during the turbulent times of the late ’60’s and early ’70’s. Just like The Mills Brothers, Lena Horne, Nat King Cole and Johnny Mathis before them, they did it with class yet were in a class by themselves. And when The 5th had to make a stand-out political point, they did it with the same spirit of finesse we always expected. Case in point, The Independence Medley from the historic “Portrait” album. Guess what? Marilyn and Billy re-purpose it today, in a way that gives thought to our country’s still-troubling Civil Rights condition and revisits their own recorded glory.
When Ms. McCoo steps forward to emote “Blackbird,” it seems no longer part of the aforementioned Beatles medley, in fact, once she concludes, it becomes indelible as a prelude to the “on the record” Independence Medley. Moreover, Marilyn makes “Blackbird” a soulmate to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Just thinking of McCoo’s watershed interpretation brings tears as it did to many in attendance. Then there’s the familiar “The Declaration,” a tune so many school children utilized to learn the “We hold these truths…that all men are created equal” words to such a revolutionary document. While unfolding, I began experiencing it as foreshadowing Broadway’s current hit “Hamilton”–yes, it’s 5th scholarship at its most hip, as well as the perfect lead-in to Billy’s tour-de-force: “A Change is Gonna Come.”
Here Davis takes us to church as we are powerfully yet poignantly reminded of struggles, losses, gains and the renewing promise of eternal hope. We soon thank God for “People Gotta Be Free” as we clap with Marilyn, Billy and singers in cathartic jubilation…what artistic transference!
Next, Marilyn’s solo signature, “One Less Bell to Answer” becomes a diva aria of Pop-Jazz that raises the roof as only an angel of song can. By the show’s conclusion, we see “The Way We Were” with newfound gratitude, for Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.–soon to celebrate a 47th wedding anniversary–have brought us our “fountain of youth” while sharing their very own, timeless musical fable.
Visit http://www.mccoodavis.com or the Official Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis, Jr. page on FB
Primary Photo Credit and Very Special Thanks to: (C) 2016 Bob Felderman, General Bob Photography
“Marilyn & Billy…an Irresistible Musical Fable,” copyright 2016 by Robert-Allan Arno for FOREVER 5th DIMENSION, a production of The Soul of the Voice, Ltd.