BWW Reviews: McNamara & Henn - Cabaret's New Dynamic Duo Dazzles at The Duplex
I haven’t been reviewing New York cabaret long enough to know if this is a trend (I’m sure many in the scene will set me straight), but since the latter part of last year I’ve caught a few male/female performing teams who combine a high level of musicianship with a keen talent for writing original songs and a fun on-stage chemistry. It’s that seductive package which made recent shows from Bob Malone/Amy Engelhardt and Lorinda Lisitza/Ted Stafford such welcome surprises. But the best of these dynamic duos may be the team of Mary Liz McNamara and Ritt Henn, who recently brought their cheeky and charming show Take That! back to The Duplex after debuting last November (they’ll be performing it at the West Village venue once a month until at least July; see dates at end of this review).
McNamara & Henn are both award-winning songwriters who have been staples of the cabaret and musical theater scenes for years, but only began writing songs together in late 2008. It’s an ideal artistic marriage. Their quirky yet accessible melodies are influenced by pop, jazz and musical theater, with intelligent lyrics that can range from heartfelt to hilarious. While neither has what would be considered a classic cabaret singing voice—Mary Liz’s vocals are sweet and melodic (and sometimes deliberately deadpan), while Ritt's instrument is deep and gravelly—it’s the individual vocal eccentricities on their own compositions that grab your attention and put the songs over.
That their April 25 show didn’t have quite the energy or snappy humor of the November debut could probably be chalked up to the smaller audience not fanning the improvisational flame between the 14 songs; four of which replaced holiday season numbers (including the duo’s 2012 MAC nominated best song “A Cautionary Christmas Tale” and McNamara’s MAC-award winning and much covered “Christmas in Michigan”). Their sense of humor and eye-winks to the audience were apparent on their opening number called, well, “Our Opening Number” during which their musings about what song to come up with and how to write it actually becomes the song (“Bridge? Bridge? Bridge? Bridge? Bridge? Bridge? Bridge? Bridge? Nah, screw the bridge.”)
Ritt takes the lead vocal on two songs about men dealing with difficult or manipulating females— his own jazzy and darkly funny “Fear,” in which the protagonist offers, “Darlin’ I’d rather live in fear than live with you.” and on the bluesy Randy Newman-esque ballad “Speak of the Devil” (co-written). The long and lean, bass-playing Henn possesses the look and demeanor of a 1950s beat poet, which was a perfect character for the duo’s new song “You’re an Artist, Baby,” that sounded like a tune written to an Allen Ginsberg poem.
The piano-playing McNamara (she’ll also handle the bass when Henn’s on ukulele for their song “Trip Momma") reminds one of Carole King, but with a touch of a bawdy Bette Midler. She whips out a raft of double entendres on “My Boyfriend Lou,” where she sings about needing men on the side as sexual toys. “I know this other guy, his name is Buck . . . not much for walking, but boy can he . . . read philosophy . . . and I really like philosophy.” Then, with just Henn’s bass as accompaniment, she turns melancholy on her lovely Broadway-tinged ballad “Tell Me,” another song about a doomed relationship that could easily become a cabaret staple. McNamara shows off her solid musical theater composing chops on the title song from her musical The Good Girl, a lovely Sondheim-sounding ballad supported with Henn’s dramatic bass licks, and her flair for total wackiness on “The Monkey Song,” about a deserted wife who earns a living by becoming an “organ-grinder on the Metroliner,” complete with Mary Liz’s ear-piercinging funny primate screeches. (To continue, click Page 2 link below.)
Two absolute treats were the new songs, Henn’s “Rapunzel (I Got All That I Need)” and McNamara’s “Haiku.” In the former, Henn narrates the story of the fairy tale heroine who here is transformed into an independent feminist in no need of a Prince Charming to define her. McNamara as Rapunzel is perfectly happy in her ivory tower; even taking out a restraining order on a wandering minstrel intent on rescuing her. In McNamara’s laugh-out-loud lyric about the 17-syllable, three-line poems, she actually includes four haiku verses, including “Nothing to eat here/What in the hell should we do/How about Chinese/That’s haiku number two.”
As a finale, Henn has written a gem that will likely be the closing number of every McNamara and Henn show until musical death do they part—the fun sing-along “Being Here With You,” in which any encounter—whether it’s a date or taking bass playing lessons—“is worth 20 bucks.” Not only does the audience not have to be asked to join in for repeat choruses, but grabbing a cabaret table candle and waving it during the chorus becomes a reflexive group reaction. If being with McNamara & Henn for an hour-plus isn’t worth 20 bucks (even if you’re a reviewer on a press comp), then nothing in cabaret is.
Mary Liz McNamara and Ritt Henn return to The Duplex (61 Christopher St. at 7th Ave. So., NY, NY 10014) with Take That! on May 22, June 14, and July 10, 2012. All shows at 7pm. Cover: $15 ($10 for MAC, ASCAP, BMI, AFM, Cabaret Hotline, Students) plus a two-drink minimum.