BWW Reviews: Ambitous New Cabaret Shows From SHANA FARR and JILLIAN LAURAIN Reach High But Fall Short
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
"A man's reach should exceed his grasp. Or what's a heaven for?" once wrote the poet Robert Browning. The line is about setting goals, striving, and ambition, all of which can be commendable desires. But sometimes in the world of cabaret, the desire to achieve the next level or to raise one's personal bar can be an overreach and overly ambitious. Such was the case with two shows staged this past week by two accomplished singers--Shana Farr and Jillian Laurain--who over the past couple of years have garnered mucho kudos for their vocal prowess and superb shows. Nobody could fault these lovely ladies for pushing their performance envelopes, but in both cases they fell short of their goals.
Shana Farr, In The Still of the Night, Laurie Beechman Theatre, March 26
When cabaret aficionados talk about the female stars of the future, Shana Farr is usually in the conversation. This elegant, blonde, shayna punim (look it up, Yiddish fans) captured the Julie Wilson Award at the 2012 Cabaret Convention and has garnered acclaim from New York to London for her Julie Andrews tribute show, Whistling Away the Dark, that she has been performing for a couple of years now. Two years ago, Farr also entered the Noel Coward Competition (sponsored by the Mabel Mercer Foundation), so her new four-show run at the Laurie Beechman (also April 2, 17, and May 31, all at 7:30 pm), a combined tribute to the songs of Coward and Cole Porter seemed like a logical transition. If any singer in New York cabaret seemed to have the bearing, the presence, and the vocal chops to handle a Coward/Porter songbook, it would be Shana Farr. Maybe it was just one of those things, but this time I wasn't mad about the girl.
As the director of her own show, Farr gave herself a daunting 21-number set, including an extremely challenging medley more than halfway through. How can one fit so many songs into even a 75-minute show? She eschewed the usual patter that might have included talking about herself or her subjects, instead opting to set up many of the songs with quotes or lyrics from the iconic songwriters. Actually, it isn't a bad conceit. When you're singing the incredibly evocative and erudite Coward and Porter lyrics, you don't need to muck things up with banal or cliché patter. Only Farr's setups didn't clearly convey a theme for the show, sometimes seemed rambling, and came off as repetitive when she kept reprising lines from Coward's "Someday I'll Find You."
Farr possesses a lovely, if not particularly powerful, soprano sound and excels at articulating lyrics. But in this particular show she sometimes fell into a style over substance mode that--mixed with an on-stage aloofness and a bit of overacting on certain songs--prevented her from completely holding a listener (at least this one) in thrall. Farr was consistently good--especially during the show's first half-but she never really soared or brought something strikingly original to these classic songs. Whenever she got on a bit of roll, as she did at the start with "In the Still of the Night," and two Coward songs, "Where Shall I Find Him" and "Zieguner," the set would fall a bit flat with a weak interpretation of a song like Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?" There were a few songs that could have been cut in the interest of less being more.
Farr started the show entering from the rear, sweetly singing the show's title song, looking elegant beyond words in a black gown with jeweled shoulder straps and a matching jeweled belt around her narrow waist. Her Musical Director/Pianist Jon Weber and Adam Fisher on cello announced their presence with authority from the opening number and provided excellent arrangements and wonderful support for their singer throughout the show. First half highlights included Coward's "Alice Is At It Again," which made it's way from story ballad into an up tempo swing arrangement, and Farr's sexy, yet elegant take on Porter's "My Heart Belongs To Daddy," one of the best renditions of this song I've heard from a cabaret performer. She brought a sense of fun to Coward's "Forbidden Fruit," the first song he ever wrote and about straying men who seek to attain women they don't have, and brought superb articulation and was wonderfully restrained vocally on Coward's "If Love Were All."
But the ambitious nature of this show reared its head 12 songs in on a "Beguine Medley," the arrangement of which seemed to tax her voice and breathing. Farr started out practically whispering a few bars of Porter's "Begin the Beguine," before quickly seguing into Coward's "Mad About the Boy," then transitioning into Porter's "So In Love," from Kiss Me Kate, than back to "Beguine." The medley didn't quite do justice to any of those wonderful songs. I would have much preferred Farr's interpretation of all three classics from beginning to end in lieu of songs that could have been cut such as Coward's "Most of Ev'ry Day" or "Never Again." (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)
The strongest part of the show's second half--and we're talking 15 songs in by now--was a Porter section that included "Let's Not Talk About Love," where Farr's frantic delivery of the lyric about the politics and pop culture of the early 1940s earned big audience applause mainly because she didn't drop a line. For "It's Alright With Me," from 1953's Can-Can, Farr grabbed a glass of champagne as a prop for playing the slightly tipsy and flirtatious girl at a high society party, and kept up the inebriated act during a deliciously suggestive take on "Love For Sale," during which Jon Weber got down and dirty with some jazzy piano riffs. Farr's ending to the song and her piercing blue eyes were both stunning. Unfortunately, the same couldn't be said about a potentially outstanding show that needs a number of strategic tweaks.
Jillian Laurain, The Music of Hollywood: Then and Now, Metropolitan Room, March 29
Since April 2011, former opera singer turned cabaret performer Jillian Laurain had been on a quite a roll. Although family and career responsibilities kept her from being a ubiquitous presence on the scene (except for occasional spots in Dana Lorge's Variety Show at the Metropolitan Room), Laurain had pretty much made all her appearances count. Three years ago, she delivered a stunning Barbra Streisand tribute show and last year her engaging tribute to Broadway show music, 100 Years of the Great White Way, was compelling enough to earn her a Bistro Award, presented just last month. But with her new Metropolitan Room show, The Music of Hollywood: Then and Now, Laurain's momentum has quickly come to a screeching soprano's halt.
As Laurain likely found with her Broadway music homage, selecting songs from the thousands of movies that have graced the screen since The Jazz Singer in 1927 is a daunting task. In her last show, Laurain selected classic Broadway tunes that worked for her still operatic-sounding soprano and she was emotionally invested in each song. For her new show, she selected a whopping 22 songs (even topping Shana Farr's recent set number), many of which were higher register ballads so similar in tempo and key as to make almost the entire set seem totally one note and which seemed to drain the show of emotion or energy. While her band--led by Musical Director Barry Levitt, Jon Burr on bass, and Howie Gordon on drums--was solid and supportive throughout, this show cried out for a good, tough director who might have convinced Laurain to consider selections more varied in tempo and tone and to trim her set list to make every number count.
Wearing a classy, low-cut black gown, the beautiful blonde got her show off to a cheeky and promising start, offering up the late Shirley Temple's signature song, "On the Good Ship Lollipop" as a ballad. Levitt then channeled his inner Liberace, pounding dramatically on a few bars of "Tara's Theme" from Gone With the Wind, leading into Laurain's big and operatic rendition of Rodgers and Hart's "With a Song In My Heart." But if Laurain had nursed it and rehearsed it you would have never known it on a clunky vocal arrangement of "The Birth of the Blues," which could have swung even more. In fact, with many of these movie songs--which, let's face it, are basically pop tunes--there was a bit too much bel canto and not enough contralto-to-mezzo soprano. Laurain was actually more effective later in the show when she tapped her lower range and got a bit grittier. By the time she got through Irving Berlin's "Now It Can Be Told" (a not as good version of the similar sounding "Say It Isn't So," and which could have been cut), and a pedestrian version of the Casablanca classic "As Time Goes By," time and the show already seemed to drag. And there were 16 more numbers in the set to go.
When Levitt opened a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers medley singing a few bars of "Isn't It A Lovely Day," one might have thought Levitt and Laurain were going to start putting on the Ritz, but the duo intersecting on "A Fine Romance" and "Cheek to Cheek" was a bit shaky and the medley fell flat. Much better was an offering of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" as a sexy, slow blues before the duo speeded things up a la Bette Midler's version, with Levitt, Burr, and Gordon doing some quality riffing on their respective instruments.
Laurain's renditions of "The Man That Got Away" and "The Windmills of Your Mind," were long on style and short on emotion, and by now it became clear how her set list could be so long for a 75-minute show. It was devoid of a story line, a connecting theme or any insight into why Laurain found these particular songs so compelling. In past shows, she's exhibited some flair for impromptu humor, but other than a cliché comment or two about how music enhances one's appreciation of a film and engenders emotion, pithy patter was gone with the wind.
Just when you might have thought Laurain's voice and energy would be strained by the weight of her set list, she made something of a comeback in the last third of the show, starting with a James Bond film suite that included songs written 48 years apart. She used her lower register and got more soulful on 1964's "Goldfinger" and 2012's "Skyfall" and was solid on both. "The Way We Were" was right in her Streisand wheelhouse and delivering the theme from The Godfather, "Speak Softly Love" in Italian took full advantage of her operatic chops. Laurain ended this show as she did her 2011 Streisand tribute with her lovely, soaring version of "A Piece of Sky" from Yentl. It's too bad most of the rest of this show didn't fly as high.