CABARET LIFE NYC: Sunday at the Cabaret with Corinna, Eva and Lianne -- Two Out of Three Ain't Bad
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
When you're a cabaret reviewer on the evening show prowl between Monday and Saturday nights (although not every night, thank goodness), you'd like to think that the God of Cabaret would make Sunday a day of rest. No such luck, since the weekend allows clubs to book shows as early as brunch time. I learned this again early this month when I felt compelled to attend three shows starring charming young female singers--Corinna Sowers-Adler at Stage 72 (the Triad), Eva Kantor at the Laurie Beechman, and Lianne Marie Dobbs at the Metropolitan Room. I didn't break my personal Sunday record of four shows in one day set in late January (yes, I should be committed), but there was a two-hour break in this mix so it still turned out to be an 8-hour cabaret extravaganza. (Thank you, oh God of Cabaret, for press comps!) While it would have been sweet for the musical marathon to have been a clean sweep of excellent shows, as Meat Loaf might croon, "Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad."
Corinna Sowers-Adler, By Request #8, Stage 72, April 7, 3PM
Whenever there's a conversation about the new generation of female cabaret standouts, say 40ish and younger, among the names that pop up (whether the Times acknowledges them or not) include: Christina Bianco, Liz Lark Brown, Carole J. Bufford, Shana Farr, Lauren Fox, Lorinda Lisitza, Colleen McHugh, Marissa Mulder, and Jennifer Sheehan. But the consistently excellent Corinna Sowers-Adler clearly deserves to be in that discussion.
I've seen three of the eight installments of Sowers-Adler's show, By Request, and if her most recent one wasn't her best, I'm sorry I didn't get to witness them all. For each of these shows, the lovely and attractive blonde with a winning personality embarks on the seemingly arduous task of soliciting song requests from her family and friends in and out of the cabaret community, and asks for the stories behind why these songs are so meaningful to them. She then selects from the dozens of requests, prepares arrangements (for this show with her fine Musical Director Markus Hauck), and learns them all within a couple of weeks of the show. In By Request #8, there wasn't one number among the 15 songs that I've heard in one of her previous shows and almost every one was pitch perfect. This is a Wizardess of Musical Oz that definitely knows how to grant requests.
By its very nature, this kind of show is going to jump from emotional to melancholy, from humorous to heartfelt, from nostalgic to romantic. Corinna produces totally enjoyable affairs that are charming and intimate, and where she gets to display her versatile voice, acting skills, and warmth as a performer. For #8, she entered looking like a big band front singer of the 1940s, deliciously retro in a cream-colored jacket with diamond-shaped black specks over a black skirt, and embellished with a red flower in her hair, red rosette heels, and a huge silver-sequined oval ring on her left hand. She immediately took the audience on a "Sentimental Journey," offering an up-tempo version of Doris Day's signature song (that the glorious Day recorded with Les Brown's Orchestra). (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)
From there, Corinna's ability to sing any style of song from any era was on full display. On the ballads, she laid a lilting soprano over Tony Bennett's first hit, "Because of You," turned the Nat King Cole standard "Too Young" into a tear-inducing tribute to her grandmother (who requested the song in memory of meeting her husband Harry in 1952 and a subsequent marriage of 56 years), rendered Whitney Houston's hit "If You Say My Eyes Are Beautiful" like a pop star, and offered a beautiful rendition of "Glory Bound," a new song written by songwriter, author, and political activist Ilene Angel after the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.
Early in the show, Corinna transitioned from the fun, up-tempo, jazzy, and sexy 2010 song by Dutch singer Caro Emerald, "That Man," to applying her beautiful operatic soprano to Puccini's "O Mio Babbino Caro," which was a request from her husband Nick and you could understand why it might be his favorite. Corinna sang "Big Time," the Frank Wildhorn song written for Linda Eder, as if she was in the big time, later showed off her full singing and acting range all within one number on the cheeky "Everybody Wants to Do a Musical," from Nick and Nora, delivered one of the best renditions of "Disneyland" (from the musical Smile) I've heard from a cabaret singer, and was totally enchanting on Wildhorn and Jack Murphy's "Finding Wonderland."
Corinna didn't even let her special guest singers upstage her, while fitting them into her set like a glove. She and her rock singer sister Rachel produced lovely harmonies on Pink's "Perfect," and she mixed her succulent soprano with Sterns Matthews' sweet tenor on Stephen Sondheim's "Children Will Listen" (requested by Matthews because he and Sowers-Adler both work with child singers). Recent MAC Award-winner for "Best Musical Comedy Show" Adam Shapiro then joined the duo ("I got two songs," quipped Matthews, "does that make me bi-requestrial?") for a raucous take on Elton John's girl group song "My Strongest Suit" from AIDA, complete with hilarious hand choreography.
For her encore, Corrina fulfilled her own request, sweetly cooing Paul Gordon's "The Secret of Happiness" from the 2009 musical Daddy Long Legs, and through lyrics like "living in the now," "following my will, and "just enjoy the ride," perhaps providing insight into what truly motivates her performances. Producing cabaret shows for the sheer joy of singing and for other people's pleasure--that's been Corrina Sowers-Adler's secret of happiness. But, frankly, nobody could begrudge her creating a new show of songs she is passionate about--for herself--and which could catapult her into the pantheon of cabaret's new generation of stars.
Cabaret performer, director, and now impresario Eric Michael Gillett recently shared a 2013 MAC Award for "Best Director" (with Gretchen Reinhagen). Well, if he orchestrates any more clinkers this year like Eva Kantor's debut show, the tritely titled The Way I Am (oh wait, he already did in late January with a clunky variety show hosted by octogenarian amateur Cookie Stark), he certainly won't be walking up to the podium at B.B. King's to accept a directorial award next March.
It's a shame, too, because Kantor is an unpretentious, attractive young woman who possesses a lovely and strong (if not yet distinctive) soprano. She generated much buzz among the cabaret cognoscenti as an up-and-comer after she was the first recipient of the Singers Forum/Actor's Equity Scholarship (for which Gillett is the Program Director) and finished in the final five of last summer's MetroStar Talent Challenge (where Gillett was one of the main judges). Kantor now studies with Gillett at the Singers Forum, which is likely why it seemed as if the director's sensibility stamp was all over her show, from the structure (grouping many of the songs by "Suites") to the weirdly eclectic song selection that included a few obscurities (like "How Could I Not?" from The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz). Did Kantor really want her first major cabaret show run to be more someone else's vision than her own?
I saw the third of Kantor's five shows (she ultimately had to cancel the last one on April 21 due to illness), and although she sang many of the 18 tunes technically well, there were few points during her set when I believed she was truly passionate about these particular songs, and it showed in her delivery, which was somewhat passive and programmed. Her acting on many of the songs seemed either forced or telegraphed, she rarely strayed from the mic stand to work the stage, and her coming-of-age, passage into early-adulthood theme was meandering and never really connected. Why would an audience (other than ones family and close friends) care about "the way you are" when they don't even know who you are?
Kantor's opening four-song "Suite" was her conveying youthful wonder and naiveté on songs like "At the Crossroads" from Doctor Doolittle, "Something's Coming" from West Side Story, and "Disneyland" from Smile (the second time I heard the song that day and Kantor's paled in comparison to Corinna Sowers-Adler's more emotional interpretation). In addition to "Disneyland," Kantor also sang Stephen Sondheim's ubiquitous "What More Do I Need?" with little pizzazz or nuance (it came during the mid-show "Suite" about her marriage to husband Jonathan, who was part of the band playing sax and clarinet), and delivered David Friedman's "My Simple Christmas Wish" (during the end-of-show career "Suite") devoid of the conviction necessary on a humorous lyric about envy and ambition. (Note to all cabaret singers: I think I've heard the aforementioned three songs about 300 times in the two and a half years I've been reviewing cabaret shows and I'm begging you--if you're not going to knock them out of the park, scratch them from your set lists!)
One of the show's weirder segues was a story about Kantor's frustration that her husband of a whole two years enjoys radio shock jock Howard Stern, leading into Christine Lavin's deliciously hilarious "Regretting What I Said . . ." which Kantor offered way too sweetly for a song that requires a building of subtle but biting sarcasm. In the end, Kantor's beautiful voice and the typically fine arrangements from Musical Director Don Rebic (with support from Dick Sarpola on bass) just weren't enough to overcome what was a pretty mundane cabaret show from the get-go. Right now, Eva Kantor comes across as more a youthful musical theater singer/actress than a charismatic cabaret performer possessing the experience and perspective necessary to put over a compelling show about herself and her life. She certainly has the potential to get there, but for this debut foray she should have taken a different route.
After experiencing two shows that ranged from the sublime to the superficial, I was hoping that my long Sunday of cabaret would at least end with something soothingly satisfying. Lianne Marie Dobbs, a musical theater singer/actress and San Francisco transplant, didn't disappoint. I hadn't been all that impressed with Dobbs when she made it to the final seven in last summer's MetroStar Talent Challenge at the Metropolitan Room, but that competition sometimes provides too small a sample for a sober or fair assessment. But for her recent run at the same venue, Dobbs pretty much had me at her show title, the song of one of my favorites--Peter Allen.
You've got to love it when Generation X or Y'ers display a passion for the Great American Songbook and the Big Band Era, and Dobbs' affinity for the classics of pre-1960s pop and musical theater is sincere, right down to her retro glamorous look that conjured the screen sirens of the 1930s and '40s. In a slinky black cocktail dress and red heels, for her opener she admitted that "I'm Old Fashioned," sweetly cooing the Jerome Kern/Johnny Mercer tune. She then showed some chutzpah taking on Herman Hupfeld's classic "As Time Goes By," displaying a rich, sensual alto with a nice belt to boot, followed by a lovely rendition of "A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square." On a medley which included "Put On a Happy Face" and a fun duet with her Musical Director Bill Zeffiro (an ideal MD for this kind of set, by the way) on "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries," Dobbs exhibited how she has been influenced by the Big Band singers of the '30s and '40s, such as Helen Forrest, Margaret Whiting, Francis Langford, and Keelie Smith. By this point it was clear that these nostalgic songs were an ideal fit for her voice and musical sensibility.
Dobbs really started cooking and became deliciously sexy when before singing the old Andy Williams hit "Home Lovin' Man," she read sensually from the late Dom DeLuise's recipe book, advising that "A really good dish is wonderful foreplay." Then she kept everyone awake on "Sleepy Time Gal," writhing seductively on top of the piano, while Zeffiro did an admirable job keeping his concentration on his charts. But while "It's a Woman's Prerogative" (Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer) to change her mind, it's not necessary to change your outfit during an hour-long cabaret show, even if it may be into a tantalizing teal evening dress adorned with long white gloves. There were two saving graces to Dobbs' affectation (something which reminded me of what I found a bit off-putting about her performances during the MetroStar turns). The costume change allowed Zeffiro a solo on his spiffy and retro original tune, "My New York," and when Dobbs' returned she did a lovely job on the difficult Frank Loesser song from Guys & Dolls, "My Time of Day," a song so deceptively intricate they wouldn't even let Marlon Brando try it in the film version.
By the time Dobbs proved on her finale that she could be especially effective on a mid-tempo ballad like Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's "The Folks Who Live on the Hill," it was finally my time of day to end another long Sunday cabaret foray and, thankfully, I could do it feeling that everything old was indeed new again.