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Playing Their Songs : Concert by John Raitt and Ann Blyth will target a crowd that craves 'hummable' music.

October 14, 1994|LIBBY SLATE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Libby Slate is a regular contributor to The Times.

NORTH HOLLYWOOD — When John Raitt and Ann Blyth sing together for the first time Sunday in the "Show of the Month" series at the Academy Plaza Theatre, they will bring a total of more than 100 years of musical film and theater performing experience to the stage.

Raitt, 77, first made his mark in 1945 as rough-hewn barker Billy Bigelow in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway classic "Carousel," after replacing star Alfred Drake as Curly in the national company of "Oklahoma!" He scored another Broadway hit in 1954 with "Pajama Game" and has performed in numerous other musicals on Broadway, on tour and in summer stock.

Blyth, 66, was nominated for an Oscar for her role as Joan Crawford's vicious daughter Veda in the 1945 film "Mildred Pierce." She had made her film debut the previous year in the Donald O'Connor musical "Chip Off the Old Block," and went on to appear in such MGM movies of the 1950s as "The Great Caruso," "Rose Marie," "The Student Prince" and "Kismet."

Sunday's pair of hourlong concerts, which feature Blyth's longtime music director Harper MacKay on piano and are preceded by the antics of comic pianist Dale Gonyea, spotlight the singers' personal film and Broadway favorites. There are solo or duet selections from "Showboat," "South Pacific," "Annie Get Your Gun" and "The Phantom of the Opera," along with Raitt's rendition of "Oklahoma!" From "Carousel," he performs his signature songs, "If I Loved You," with Blyth, and "Soliloquy."

The program is particularly appropriate for inclusion on the "Show of the Month" roster; the series, geared to audiences older than 50, debuted in September, 1993, at Cal State Northridge but was moved after the earthquake. "It's their music," says Raitt by phone from Florence, Italy, where he and wife Rosemary are vacationing. "They say, 'Now you're singing my kind of music.' "

Adds Blyth, from her home in Rancho Santa Fe: "It seems to me that for such a long time, older people didn't have a place (in the Valley) to go to hear this music. I get a wonderful response to it across the country--they say, 'Thank you so much for bringing that music again.' It's hummable, whistle-able--all those nice things that much of today's music isn't."

The two have proven to be as long-lasting as their repertoire. For almost five years now, Blyth has appeared in a patter- and tune-filled cabaret act with former "Days of Our Lives" soap star Bill Hayes, including stints in Las Vegas and at the Rainbow & Stars club in Rockefeller Center in New York. She had retired from movies after "The Helen Morgan Story" in 1957 in favor of family life: She and her husband of 41 years, Dr. James McNulty, an obstetrician, have three daughters and two sons, with their seventh and eighth grandchildren due by year's end.

Raitt performs about 20 concerts a year, among them this year's televised Fourth of July celebration in Washington, D.C., and appearances with pop / blues singing daughter Bonnie at Radio City Music Hall in New York and at the Hollywood Bowl. His other singing partners include Constance Towers and Anna Maria Alberghetti, and he regularly headlines concerts by the Hollywood-based American Center for Music Theater--a training program for aspiring performers--of which he is board president.

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Although they have sung many of Sunday's selections numerous times, both say the songs remain fresh. "In almost every phrase, there's such emotion that it would be difficult not to feel it when you sing it, and hopefully, pass it on to the audience," Blyth says. "It's the best way to communicate to those who are perfect strangers; suddenly, they're not strangers any more."

"These songs are just a part of me," adds Raitt, who in January was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in New York. "That's your training. It's your life's work. You always try to bring something new to it, even if it's a song you've sung a thousand times. I love to sing. People say 'You look younger,' and I feel younger, when I'm on stage. I love performing, and if people want to hear me, that's even better."

Indeed, he says, in mentioning upcoming commitments, "I think it's wonderful to have something to look forward to. At my age, I like firsts." Having recently participated in a recording of the new show "Jekyll and Hyde" by Frank Wildhorn, in November he guests on opera star Thomas Hampson's Broadway album and will record his own album early next year, for Angel Records.

Blyth, meanwhile, is assembling a new act of Broadway music with Hayes. She could be speaking for Raitt as well when she says: "I've always enjoyed the joy, the excitement, the pure pleasure of singing this music. It's so easy to listen to, it stays with you. Isn't any art supposed to do that--to climb inside you and give you a wonderful feeling?"

Where and When

What: Ann Blyth and John Raitt in concert, with opening act Dale Gonyea.

Location: Academy Plaza Theatre, 5230 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

Hours: 5 and 8 p.m. Sunday .

Price: $21.50.

Call: (818) 785-8885.

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