The fact that John Wallowitch and Bertram Ross are darlings of the New York cabaret world is completely understandable. These two septuagenarians are sophisticated, charming, and eminently lovable. Wallowitch composes hilariously comic and wistfully romantic songs which he then plays on the piano accompanying Ross, his elegant straight man. Their voices may not be great, but their hearts certainly are, and together they create a unique, if unlikely, style.
Now director Richard Morris has preserved this remarkable partnership in a 77-minute documentary, Wallowitch & Ross: This Moment. Alternating between stories and songs, including both formal and informal performances by the duo, the film provides historical perspective, with commentary by a variety of colleagues, as well as archival footage, posters, and programs.
Bertram Ross, the tall handsome vocalist with impeccable comic timing, wasn’t always a singer. He joined the Martha Graham Company as principal dancer in 1947, resigning in 1973. For most of those years he was also co-director of the company. He and Wallowitch began their cabaret career together in 1984.
Wallowitch studied at Juilliard where his classical piano training led to a Carnegie Hall recital. He has written over 100 songs, including "Come a Little Closer," "This Moment," and "Bruce." Many of his songs have been recorded by leading artists – Blossom Dearie, Morgana King, Margaret Whiting, Karen Akers, and Shirley Horn.
The partners’ romantic relationship is shown, but never made the focus of the documentary. They were introduced by friends over thirty years ago, after Wallowitch had seen Ross dance, and Ross had picked up one of Wallowitch’s recordings by chance. They obviously know each other intimately: in song and in conversation they complement each other perfectly. When Ross went to London for an extended period, Wallowitch wrote "My Love Went to London," which was recorded years later by Tony Bennett.
There is a brief appearance by Dixie Carter and an affecting scene with Wallowitch at the piano with Lyn Lobban singing "Runaway," a poignant song that Wallowitch composed at the age of thirteen. In addition to performing Wallowitch’s original compositions, the team also sings Berlin, Gershwin, and Porter. Together they tell a touching tale of regularly serenading Irving Berlin’s Manhattan home with friends on Christmas Eve. One year they were invited in, and after singing "White Christmas" to the fragile composer, were told that their performance is the best Christmas present he has ever received.
The camerawork and editing are sometimes lax and the identification of commentators occasionally inconsistent, but these minor defects fail to detract from the show’s shining stars. The portrait ends on a suitably sweet note, with Wallowitch declaring "Bertram Ross is my life," and then giving him a big kiss on the cheek. What more need be said?
– Jim Van Buskirk