BWW Reviews: Peggy Eason's New Cabaret Show at Don't Tell Mama is a Poignant Message of Personal Empowerment
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
Peggy Eason is one of those characters who seem to have been made for the New York cabaret scene. She's a bodacious woman who is ubiquitous at the local clubs, possesses a passion for singing, and bills herself as the "Chocolate Diva," although on stage she's more like a Red Hot Mama. Eason opened her third solo cabaret show, I'll Show Them All, at Don't Tell Mama on Monday night (she's appearing again at the club on Sunday at 7pm) with the decidedly politically incorrect titled song written especially for her by David Conforte, "Black, Blind and Beautiful" (Hey, "African American, Visually Challenged and Beautiful" doesn't have the same ring to it.). But there was little that was incorrect about her fast-paced and entertaining show that was often poignant and funny at the same time.
When you survive being born at just about two pounds and then go through life sightless, you know a thing or two about resilience, personal empowerment, and appreciating life. "Just being alive is beautiful," Eason remarked after her opening number, and then proceeded to double down on the notion of not allowing a disability to turn you bitter or make you feel inferior. She revealed a strong and polished alto to mezzo soprano vocal on songs with messages that laugh in the face of limitations, such as Howlett Smith's "Here I Come," followed by Steve Allen's "I'll Show Them All" (from the 1963 Broadway Musical Sophie, about the early life and career of Sophie Tucker, which only lasted eight performances). So confident is this woman with three Masters degrees (two in music and one in social work) that she announced to any critics who might be present, "I want my review in Braille!" (Sorry, Peggy, I don't have the keyboard or the app for that.)
It's too bad Eason couldn't see the watery eyes of her audience (although I'm betting she could probably feel them) during her tender rendition of Helen Reddy's "You and Me Against The World," which was dedicated to her first husband Steve, who died of lung cancer in 2004 from complications of inhaling toxic World Trade Center fumes in 2001. After a lovely "My Ship" (the Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin song from the 1941 musical Lady In the Dark), Eason lightened the mood with a short and sweet "I'm All Smiles" (one of the great Michael Leonard songs from another short-lived musical, 1965's The Yearling), and followed by crowing that with the help of her director Lennie Watts, "I was able to put the microphone in and out of the stand all by myself." When she mispronounced "Nostrovia" ("to good health") after singing "Vodka," a tribute to her favorite alcohol (from the 1925 musical Song of the Flame), she quipped, "What do you think I am, a Black Russian?"
Like countless cabaret singers who never performed on a theater stage, Eason has harbored a life-long dream of being in a Broadway Musical. So she attempted to live out that fantasy through a pithy medley of classics from Gypsy, Chicago, My Fair Lady, and The King and I. But the highlight was the "Lida Rose"/ "Sweet and Low" duet from The Music Man with Musical Director/Pianist Steven Ray Watkins, who was incredibly supportive of his singer the entire show. Watkins also ably joined Eason during the repeat verse on her touching rendition of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America."
The best cabaret performers are those who completely understand the intimate nature of the art form, don't withdraw into themselves, can deliver songs as if they were giving a private show to each audience member, and feed off the response they get in return. There's no singing over the room and certainly no extended periods of eye closing and detachment. Peggy Eason doesn't have the luxury of being able to make eye contact, but she connects through her other heightened senses, her power of perception, and her expressive, powerful voice through which many lyrics become her personal statements. She started her finale saying, "Welcome to my world," at which point the room lights went out and Eason was heartfelt and expressive on "Here's Where I Stand," the Lynn Ahrens/Michael Gore ballad from the 2003 musical film Camp.
Here in the dark
I stand before you, knowing
This is my chance to show you my heart
This is the start, this is the start.
I have so much to say and I'm hoping
That your arms are open
Don't turn away, I want you near me
But you have to hear me.
Here's where I stand,
Here's who I am
Love me, but don't tell me who I have to be
Here's who I am,
I'm what you see.
How does Peggy Eason see us? As she revealed before her encore, "Through The Eyes of Love," the Marvin Hamlisch/Carol Bayer Sager theme from the film Ice Castles, "You can see clearly when you love and receive love."
During Peggy Eason's charming and compelling cabaret show, everybody was feeling the love--and she was the one showing us all how.