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Don MclLean: Storyteller

Stephen Hanks and Sean Harkness

Stephen Hanks
With Sean Harness, Frank Ponzio and Skip Ward
Don't Tell Mama
343 - West 46 St. NYC
November 11, 2015; December 16, 2015
70 minutes
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors

While Don Mclean's mega-hit, "American Pie" traces the changes of American popular music from the mid-1950's to the late 1960's, Stephen Hanks shines a light on the lesser-known songs of Don McLean and how the music influenced him.  McLean was a storyteller.  Hanks, a writer, reviewer and publisher, is also a storyteller, articulate, easy and witty.  He has an acute appreciation of phrasing and stress, and if his vocal range is limited, he delivers the songs with emphasis on the stories and evident admiration. Don McLean: Storyteller, his well-structured show at Don't Tell Mama puts it all together with moments of poignancy and laughs.  

Don McLean: Storyteller, is not Stephen Hanks' first McLean tribute but he is always ready for another slice of the pie.  In 2013, he delivered Beyond American Pie: The Don McLean Songbook at the Metropolitan Room and Stage 72.  The current show offers a generous panoply of songs, including bits of "American Pie" and other audience favorites.  
Incidentally, while McLain recorded some covers that became hits for other singers and was the inspiration for "Killing Me Softly With His Song," a huge success for Roberta Flack, he did not sing his covers in this show.  (The cover songs could be in an intriguing new show for Hanks).

Hanks has been a Don McLean fan since 1971, when he heard a recording of the new top tune, "American Pie" and was hooked.  The previously recorded, "Vincent (Starry Starry Night)," once rejected, followed him on the charts.  He had paid his dues through the 1960's in the folk clubs and entertaining with his mentor, Pete Seeger, promoting the environment.  Hanks remained a fan and a student of his works.  While major hits were "American Pie" and "Vincent," McLean continued writing, recording and touring through the 1970's to the present.  

McLean studies people in his music and tells their stories.  Hanks interprets the songs, not only the personalities but their experiences and the society surrounding the characters in the songs.  "Bronco Bill's Lament," tells the tale of an aged movie cowboy's regret as he looks back, realizing, "I could beat those desperados but there's no sense fightin' time."  "Sister Fatima," lady of the evening on 42nd Street "Where sins are forgotten and sickness is healed/ For five dollars the flower is free."  Well defined portraits of ordinary people emerge.  "Narcisisma," the jaunty uptempo tune about the belle of Pomona who promises, "And if you need a new location where you'll best be satisfied/ You might prefer to fall in love with her."  

Hanks has a casual stage presence with anecdotes about the upcoming song or grooving with a few dance steps, quipping,  "I'm embarrassing my daughter who is here tonight."  He later tenderly croons a lullaby he used to sing to his baby daughter, "Wonderful Baby."  It is a loving song edged with a paternal warning.  "Wonderful baby, Nothing to fear/ Love whom you will, but doubt what you hear."  Lovely and heartbreaking is the song of loss, "Empty Chairs" and "Vincent," which takes on heightened pathos as he dedicates it to his late brother.

Guitarist/musical director Sean Harkness adds his voice as backup and outstanding guitar licks.  Pianist Frank Ponzio and Skip Ward on bass provide diversified support for the many colors in the Don McLean songbook.  

Guitarist/musical director Sean Harkness softly adds vocals as occasional backup and guitar licks are outstanding.  Pianist Frank Ponzio and Skip Ward on bass provide diversified support for the many colors in the Don McLean songbook.  Interpreted with intelligence and sensitivity, Don McLean: Storyteller ends with "American Pie," the anthem of modern pop music, the audience joining in the chorus.  Stephen Hanks has delivered a show well-worth seeing and definitely enjoying.

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