Stage Review: Honoring ‘The Life That Late He Led’

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It was as much about looking forward as looking back. Pepperdine’s tribute to veteran musical comedy star John Raitt Sunday was also a salute to the next generation of Broadway-bound talent.

Currently recovering from a broken ankle and head injury, Raitt was seated with his wife, Rosemary, in the packed Smothers Theatre. The show opened with Raitt’s image projected on stage over his recording from “Oklahoma,” his first major role for Rodgers and Hammerstein. Five Pepperdine alumni-Layne Baker, Lisa Dunn, Brian Jones, Matt Logan and Jill Van Velzer-then took up the refrain with “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” and a medley of songs from “Carousel,” “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Pajama Game.” More than showcasing their considerable talents, the performers told stories of their experiences with Raitt, sharing the stage with him in student productions and learning from him in master classes.

Other former students currently working in the real world of theater sent their greetings to Raitt on film, from Times Square to Japan, projected on stage.

Hayley McClelland, Freshman Terrell Sales and Seaver College faculty member Bill Szobody’s high energy dance number, “Steam Heat,” choreographed by Jon Engstrom, brought the house to its feet.

Musical Director Jeffrey Urband accompanied all on the grand piano.

The second act featured Raitt’s daughter, Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and guitarist Bonnie Raitt with her longtime bassist Hutch Hutchinson. She said she grew up backstage learning from her dad and dedicated James Taylor’s “Rainy Day Man” to him.

“My folks were surprised when I took to the blues,” she said. “I was just 19 and I think dad was shocked when I sang, ‘I’m Built For Comfort Not For Speed.’ But he’s gotten used to it.” Introducing “Shadow of Doubt,” she said, “This is an emotional time of year, and for our troops and for all the suffering around the world, I want to sing this gospel song.” Then she dedicated one of her own songs, “Just No Getting Over You,” to all of those in the audience “who, like me, survived growing up in L.A.”

During a set change, she introduced her brothers David and Steve, and their families on stage. “High tide at the gene pool,” she quipped. She also acknowledged her stepmother, Rosemary, who, with John, co-founded the Center for the Arts Guild and donated Raitt Recital Hall.

“Dad always let us be ourselves,” she said. “He was never judgmental.”

He did, however, convince his daughter that although her career was made in pop and blues, she had the pipes to sing show tunes. “He always said singing was just telling a story, putting your heart and soul into the voice. His inspiration was the greatest gift.”

And so, the blues singer and the Broadway baritone sang a few show tunes together just to prove his point. John remained seated in a chair and Bonnie perched on a stool beside him. He dedicated “Younger Than Springtime” to Rosemary, then tackled the difficult but amusing “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?” from “Kiss Me Kate.”

After more than 60 years in theater, he is still “handsome as ever,” Bonnie noted. And though he wasn’t bounding around the stage with the energy of his youth, the resonant baritone is still powerful in its upper register, the ability to tell a story with his voice as compelling as ever.