CABARET LIFE NYC: Marissa Mulder Again is Magical, But When It Comes to 'Standards' You Gotta Have Standards
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
One of the truly guilty pleasures while watching the Tony Awards each year has become monitoring social media for all the catty comments posted about the show's more questionable production choices and less than stellar performances. The good news is that the Tonys maintain its status as the height of award-show sophistication in that very little of the venting, sarcasm, disparaging remarks, hilarious asides, and general dishing on Facebook, Twitter, et al, are directed at celebrity fashion faux pas. Heck, this year the E! Network didn't even bother to televise a post-Tonys "Fashion Police" show, so we didn't get to hear Joan Rivers say that Fran Drescher's dress looked like the Little Mermaid as a Creamsicle. (That was painful to write because I love Fran.)
The most pungent postings, as usual, were bemoaning--and rightly so--contemporary Broadway Musical scores, and some of the songs given featured spots on the show. Even I couldn't restrain myself from hitting my cell phone keyboard when Idina Menzel belted the overwrought and tuneless supposed showstopper "Always Starting Over" from If/Then. And don't even get me started on the forgettable big ballad Jennifer Hudson sang from Finding Neverland, a show that hadn't even started its Broadway run yet (I still can't find a website that knew the song's title.) Basically, here's the deal on the quality of the current crop of Broadway show music (going back years now): Cole Porter songs that were CUT from his musicals because they weren't quite up to his usual excellence are infinitely better than what's passing for most musical theater compositions these days. And those that are the current cream of the crop, like a couple of Jason Robert Brown standouts from Bridges of Madison County, don't even get heard during the Tonys because the show closed just days before the event (at least Brown won for Best Score and Best Orchestrations; thank heaven for small favors).
When I was child listening to the Beatles, and then a teenager bopping to 1960s rock and pop, I often heard my parents and their friends wail the familiar, "They don't write 'em like they used to," which engendered much eye rolling from their precocious and already opinionated son. Perhaps when my Dad was a kid and a fanatic for the Big Band sounds of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, his parents were pining for Stephen Foster tunes. It seems that everyone thinks music was better "in their day," and they are mostly wrong. The ones who are right are those connoisseurs of classic Musical Theater scores, champions of the songs that make up the so-called "Great American Songbook," and the memorable pop tunes of the '50s through the '70s that could comprise a "New Great American Songbook" (such as the songs you hear in the best cabaret tribute shows devoted to that era). The music of today--Broadway or otherwise--isn't in the same universe, let alone ballpark, with that of yesteryear. There, I said it. If that's just another example of the child becoming the parent, so be it.
All of this brings me to a review--really two reviews in one--of a recent cabaret show, called "Living Standards," that had a four-show run at the Metropolitan Room. (I saw the opening on May 14, and it subsequently ran again on May 21, June 4, and June 6.) The show was conceived, produced, and directed by the well-regarded theater and MAC Award-winning cabaret songwriter Tom Toce, and featured 14 songs written by living composers and lyricists (hence the title), some of whom were referred to in the show's promotion as being among "the best of today's cabaret songwriters." The vocal vehicle through which Toce would present his selection of "standards" would be the skyrocketing young cabaret star, Marissa Mulder (whose performance will be addressed in the second part of this review). The set also included songs by singer-songwriters in pop and musical theater, while songs by "celebrity" singer-songwriters were thrown in for good measure. The promotion went on to say that the set list would include songs that "are every bit as witty, elegant, touching, and intelligent as the Gershwin/Kern/Porter standards of days past . . . Some songs are well-known in the cabaret community, having achieved "standard" status through numerous recordings and industry awards. Other songs are less well-known, but in the opinion of the show's creators, equally deserving of the high status."
Well, talk about setting the bar high and making expectations even higher. While any show of this nature--and the song selection--is inherently and understandably subjective, the pretentiousness of this particular show conceit was off the charts. That doesn't mean the show didn't feature some delightful, moving, and memorable songs (especially as conveyed by the terrific Ms. Mulder), but the label "standard" as applied to a song can not and should not be thrown around loosely. There have to be standards when it comes to "standards." The Great American Songbook didn't get to be that by accident. The songs our popular culture considers the best ever written were arrived at through a national consensus based on critical acclaim, air play, record sales, the greatness of the vocalists who helped make the songs famous, and the collective consciousness and esteem of the American public. Julie Gold's "Goodnight, New York" is a lovely song performed over the years by lots of great cabaret singers, but when you start tagging it with the moniker "standard," living or otherwise, you've lost me.
On top of not buying the show's premise, its structure was awkward due to the mix of songs from composers who are well known locally with the totally arbitrary inclusion of pop tunes from famous singer-songwriters like Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman. But here's the rub or the conundrum, if you will. Without the songs from those bold-faced name songwriters, "Living Standards," would have been almost a copycat of a terrific show recently staged by cabaret singer Tanya Moberly, called "I Love NY Songwriters." (At least Moberly had the good sense not to oversell her set as one filled with "standards.") And if you are going to mix up your theme, why include songs by Waits, Mitchell and Newman? What about McCartney, Joel and Wonder? How about Elton, Carol King and Simon (both Paul and Carly)? And if you are going to include Randy Newman songs, why pick two ("When Somebody Loved Me" [from Toy Story 2] and "Living Without You" [from Newman's first album in 1968] that clearly are not among his classics. If you really want to present a show featuring "Living Standards" (which I guess means John Lennon, Marvin Gaye and Harry Chapin can't make the cut), why not go the whole nine yards and make the case for the "New Great American Songbook," and fill a show with classic pop and rock 'n roll and the best Broadway Musical songs from the past 25 years? Perhaps, I'm being incredibly anal about all this, but I thought this concept was a misguided one from the moment I heard about it--and still do.
In spite of the off-putting and clunky nature of the show conceit, the show itself was still entertaining thanks to the mesmerizing Marissa Mulder, who can do little wrong on a cabaret stage these days. She conveyed a palpable chemistry with her Musical Director/pianist Nate Buccieri right from the start, an opening which Toce used to make his case for the concept with a quickie he wrote with Bill Zeffiro, mockingly called--what else--"They Don't Write 'Em Like They Used To." (Sorry to break the news to you, Tom: They don't.) Mulder followed with Annie Gallup's country-sounding ballad "Circle" and made the song sound better than it is. Then the show immediately went off its unheralded contemporary songwriter course with Joni Mitchell's "Chelsea Morning," arguably a pop "standard," with Buccieri supplying backing vocals on Mulder's serene rendition.
Mulder was strong, confident, and thoroughly engaging on a couple of clever single-woman-dealing-with-dating-travails songs, "It's Only a First Date" (Douglas Cohen/Dan Elish), a sweet ballad about a woman smitten with a guy and dreaming of what could be, followed by Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler's laugh-out-loud "Apathetic Man." Mulder was both funny and sexy on this song, something she probably couldn't have pulled off this well even a year ago. Craig Carnelia's "What You'd Call a Dream" (from the 1984 musical review about baseball, Diamonds) has become a popular ballad among cabaret singers and Mulder's take was appropriately tender and dramatic (although as a father who coached his daughter in Little League, I would have loved hearing Marissa sing "the girl at bat is me"). Her duet with Buccieri on Anais Mitchell's "Old-Fashioned Hat" did justice to a compelling lyric, but a "standard" the song is not.
For her stunning MAC Award-winning 2013 Tom Waits tribute show, Mulder (and her director Lauren Fox) probably felt the poignant story song "Martha" wasn't the right fit, so Marissa included it here and her rendition was superb. But again, why this tune when one can choose among all the classic songs of 1970s and '80s pop singer-songwriters? When Mulder followed with another mid-tempo ballad, John Bucchino's "In a Restaurant by the Sea" (again, a beautiful song but not a "standard"), the order of the set list was turning her into Marissa Morose, a feeling only reinforced when she followed that with a boring arrangement of those Randy Newman ballads. There was finally some relief when Mulder was adorable on the fun, more up-tempo Christine Lavin favorite, "Good Thing He Can't Read My Mind." Standard? Ah, no.
The closest this show came to including a "standard" by a contemporary New York-based songwriter--at least in this reviewer's subjective opinion--was with Francesca Blumenthal's poignant "The Lies of Handsome Men" (also featured in Moberly's show). Mulder's vocal was enchanting, but Blumenthal's lyric about a woman who is easily charmed and then disappointed by good looking cads yet never learns her lesson, is better suited to a more mature singer who may have been there, done that. Matt Alber's 2008 romantic pop ballad, "The End of the World," isn't a "standard" quite yet, but it is a song with a mesmerizing melodic hook and Mulder delivered it with tenderness and understanding, helped along by Buccieri's fine accompaniment.
Overall, Mulder's performance was totally charming and her growth as a singer who can tackle almost style of song and make it her own continues apace. Had she decided to follow her outstanding Tom Waits show with one featuring an eclectic mix of songs she loves--and the ones here happened to be the choices--this effort would have seemed even more impressive. Unfortunately, the questionable show premise and overselling of the songs as "standards," diminished what could have been a truly great show. Kind of like the Tony Awards.