Fun and harmony in Vangari’s ‘Moon Tunes & Mad Things’ at NYC’s Don’t Tell Mama

The mother/daughter cabaret act Vangari – Evangeline (Vange) and Ariana (Ari) Johns – has returned to their home-away-from-home at Don’t Tell Mama this week for two performances of their new show Moon Tunes & Mad Things, with a set list of fourteen numbers ranging from Broadway show tunes to Blues ballads, pop hits to novelty songs. Accompanied on piano and vocals by their multi-talented long-time musical director Darryl Curry, the tight-knit duo, directed by Max McGuire, with assistant direction by Mark Mindek and Christopher Carver, brought all the emotions inherent in love and relationships, the laughs of over-the-top reactions to romance and the world, and the beautiful harmony of both their unbreakable bond and their vocal duets to the hour-long concert.

Evangeline Johns, Ariana Johns, and Darryl Curry. Photo by Christopher Carver.

Opening with Kander and Ebb’s funny up-tempo “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup” from the little-known 1971 musical 70, Girls, 70, the pair, in keeping with the lyrics, joked about what’s wrong with the world today (and also themselves!) in pre- and post-song banter that got the show off to a rollicking start. Other uproarious songs, which numbered among my favorites, included Vange’s lead as Roxie Hart on Kander and Ebb’s “Funny Honey” from Chicago (in which her husband rats her out in court, with Darryl providing the man’s voice); the Johns’ duet, on which Curry joined in, of the 1987 indie release “Middle Age Blues” by the three-women ensemble Saffire, in which they laughingly expressed their need for a younger man while delivering their flawless vocal harmonies; and the swing-style “Tongue Tied” of 2017, by singer-songwriter Kate Earl, with love leaving the women inarticulate and Darryl chiming in with absolutely hilarious nonsensical sounds.

Ariana also captured the humor of Steve Allen’s “How Dare You, Sir” from the 1969 album Albert’s House, written for jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, and together they nailed the dark comedy of musical satirist Tom Lehrer’s 1953 murderous song “I Hold Your Hand in Mine” (literally!), which had the house screaming (with laughter).

Vangari. Photo by Deb Miller.

Along with all the laughs were heartfelt renditions of such songs of longing as the 1967 Frankie Valli hit “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” with Vange starting at a slow soft pace then belting out the famous chorus; her quiet solo on Diana Krall’s 2017 jazz ballad “No Moon at All;” and the duo again spotlighting their perfect harmonies in “Moon Outside My Window” from the 1963 Tambourines to Glory by Langston Hughes and Jobe Huntley. And their wistful well-arranged medley of the 1945 standard “Autumn Leaves” by Joseph Kosma (with English lyrics by Johnny Mercer) and The Mamas & The Papas’ 1965 hit “California Dreamin’,” with Vange taking the lead on the former and Ari on the latter, was a clear crowd favorite, both in this show and in past concerts.

The set list also included “I’m Fine,” a song by Darryl (music) and Ariana (lyrics) from their original musical Buzz: Son of a Bee, and a brilliantly unique arrangement by Curry (who contributed all the terrific arrangements in the program) of Bob Dylan’s “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” sung in signature cabaret style by Vange. Rounding out the show were the entertaining “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” by Holland/Dozier/Holland, popularized by The Supremes in 1966 – but here in Vangari’s version, replete with laugh-out-loud mock-angry epithets by the trio at the end of the frustrated lyrics; and “Peas in a Pod” by Michael Korie and Scott Frankel, from the 2006 musical Grey Gardens, which had Vange and Ari joining arms, then faux-fighting over the lead, and doing chorus-line kicks and body percussion (choreographed by McGuire and Mindek, as were all the numbers, to fit the venue’s intimate stage), for a lively, comical, and upbeat ending to the show. Well, not quite; the audience also got the encore they wanted, with an equally enjoyable singalong to Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s 1944 classic “Accentuate the Positive.”

Ariana Johns and Evangeline Johns. Photo by Deb Miller.

You have one more chance to catch Vangari’s Moon Tunes & Mad Things this week at Don’t Tell Mama, on Thursday, beginning at 7 pm. And if you go, make positively sure to demand that uplifting encore! Following the show, you can stay for an up-close-and-personal meet-and-greet and photo op with the personable Vange, Ari, and Darryl.

Running Time: Approximately 60 minutes, without intermission.

Photo by Christopher Carver.

Moon Tunes & Mad Things plays again on Thursday, June 8, 2023, at 7 pm, at Don’t Tell Mama, 343 West 46th Street, NYC. For reservations (priced at $18, or $13 for MAC members, plus a $20 per person two drink food and beverage minimum; cash only), go online.  Masks are not required.


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