CABARET LIFE NYC: The Power of the 'Pan' and Catch-Up Show Reviews from a Long Cabaret Winter
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
If you are even a semi-regular reader of this column of reviews, you know that about every three or four months, I post a compilation of observations of shows from the previous quarter of the year. This cabaret critiquing mash up happens for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I admittedly see too many cabaret shows for the amount of time I have to promptly review them (and then, of course, the usual writer's procrastination sets in). So I have to prioritize the timeliness of the reviews based on the prestige of the performer, the length of a show run, the strength (or lack thereof) of the performance, etc. The quality of the shows in these compilations--which can range in number from a half dozen to a dozen reviews in one shot--are usually a mixed bag of outright raves, qualified positives, and constructive pans (I'm not a fan of the word "negative" in the reviewer lexicon).
One of the more interesting reactions I've received from one of these columns came last summer after a review of six shows from that spring, the first of which was a flat-out rave, two that were lukewarm positives, and three which were big thumbs downs. It was in the form of an email from an occasional cabaret performer (who will remain nameless), who seemed shocked--shocked!--that I actually knocked some shows.
"I was on Facebook and saw you'd posted your review column," the note began. "I read most of the first one, thinking, 'Do these reviewers [sorry to think of you momentarily as just one in a general category] ever give a negative review?' Then I read the rest of the column and was pleasantly surprised. I'm not kidding. I do think some reviewers are guilty of loving just about everybody. As difficult as it must be to give [and receive] a less-than-glowing review, you have to be real, right? Otherwise, the positive reviews end up being non-believable. Am I wrong?"
Of course the observation wasn't wrong, although I'd phrase the point a bit differently. It's not that the positive reviews become difficult to take seriously across the board (although some readers might perceive that). There are a handful of cabaret reviewers who are much more qualified to render critiques (not to mention being superior writers and reporters) then the rest and their judgment should be respected. The issue is that when every show or performer is considered to be great or wonderful, nothing is great or wonderful. The biggest culprits are those reviews of shows performed by bold-faced name celebrities that are breathless and fawning no matter how mediocre or average those shows may actually be. As painful as it is to read a tough show critique--even when they are admittedly a matter of personal taste and opinion--they are absolutely essential if the art form is to maintain standards of excellence, and if the truly great shows and performers are to receive their proper due.
With that in mind here are a collection of cabaret show reviews going back to the start of a very harsh winter.
Christine Reisner-Rebic and Don Rebic: Look Who's In Love, The Laurie Beechman Theatre, February 9
If their friends were shouting "Get a room!" after one of New York's most respected Musical Directors Don Rebic and sultry singer Christine Reisner became newlyweds in late 2012, they probably meant a cabaret room. So that's what this attractive and talented twosome did, bringing their PDA to the Laurie Beechman in February for their debut show, Look Who's In Love. Conceived by Reisner, directed by Michael Bush, and with Rebic on piano providing his usual outstanding arrangements on many of the numbers (helped by some cleverly produced pre-recorded percussion and strings tracks)--the adorable couple exhibited nice on-stage chemistry and produced a charming show.
Entering wearing a tight black and red outfit that accentuated her sexy dancer's figure (later there would be two more costume changes), Reisner seemed determined to prove that she was a triple-threat, as she also offered a few Fosse-esque dancing breaks and even played the violin on some songs. While more a Jill-of-all-trades than a master of any, she offered a sweet alto to mezzo vocal. Rebic displayed a surprisingly good jazzy tenor, especially on the couple's fun original duet "Two Heads Are Better Than One."
The Rebics were more entertaining on up-tempos that included nifty harmonies, like on a jazzy arrangement of "Together," from Gypsy. Reisner seemed more comfortable and confident as the show progressed, with her two best vocals coming in the show's second half; the first on the bluesy ballad "Early Blue Evening" (composed by her uncle Albert Hague, with lyrics by Langston Hughes), during which she also played an extended blues riff on the violin, and then on the finale with Irving Berlin's "Let Yourself Go." They ain't Pizzarelli and Molaskey or Comstock and Fasano quite yet, but it's cool to have another set of musical marrieds in New York cabaret. (Please click on Page 2 below to continue)
Broadway By The Year: 1915-1939, The Town Hall, February 24
For the 14th season of his Broadway Musical history extravaganzas, producer Scott Siegel is celebrating a century worth of shows with nice round numbers: 100 years, 100 shows, 100 songs, 100 performers. I had to be there for round one because it would include songs made famous by my all-time favorite Broadway star, Al Jolson. Here are the quickie reviews:
Mark Nadler: "I Love a Piano"--Over-the-top opener.
Chip Zien: "Robinson Crusoe"--Jolson number without the big voice.
Howard Fishman: "Till The Clouds Roll By"--Fine folk version on guitar.
Beth Leavel: "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby"--Jolson number done justice.
Lari White and BBTY Chorus: "Swanee"--A classic Gershwin/Jolson turned into a cheesy ballad-style arrangement.
Jillian Louis: "Look For The Silver Lining"--Sorry, still looking.
Stephanie J. Block: "My Man"--Great, but can anyone sing this without sounding like Streisand?
Noah Racey: "Stairway to Paradise"--Astaire-like on jazzy arrangement.
Karen Akers: "What'll I Do"--Elegant understatement.
Dillon McCartney: "The Serenade"--Irish tenor triumphant.
John Easterlin: "Only A Rose"--Unplugged and beautiful.
Lari White: "Can't Help Lovin' That Man"--Great vocal on bluesy arrangement.
Sebastian Arcelus: "I've Got a Crush On You"--Sexy yet classy.
Kecia Lewis: "Ain't Misbehaven"--Cool and soulful.
Carole J. Bufford: "Love For Sale"--Powerful Porter.
Danny Gardner and Aleka Emerson: "I Love You"--Foot-tapping dance fun.
Camille Saviola: "I Got A Right To Sing The Blues"--I believe her.
Tonya Pinkins: "Supper Time"--Unplugged and mesmerizing.
Julia Murney: "Blow, Gabriel, Blow"--Solid and bouncy.
Sal Viviano: "Begin the Beguine"--Smooth and passionate.
Karen Mason: "Ridin' High"--Swinging and sassy.
Carolee Carmelo: "Johnny One-Note"--A vocal orchestra
Emily Skinner: "I'll Be Seeing You"--Poignant nostalgia.
Danny Gardner and Noah Racey: "Friendship"--Super energy dance duet.
Joshua Henry (photo, above) and Company: "Old Man River"--Awesomely stirring.
Bob Diamond: As Time Goes By . . . My Memories of the Movies, Don't Tell Mama, February 28
About a year after popular and charming septuagenarian Bob Diamond staged his autobiographic show, This Funny World, he was back at Don't Tell Mama with what seemed like a sequel, this time his story focusing on his love for the movies and his one-time dream of being a film star. Diamond displayed energy and his sense of fun right from the start on Musical Director/pianist Tracy Stark's punchy arrangement of Irving Berlin's "Alexander's Ragtime Band," followed by a medley of "Hooray for Hollywood" and Craig Carnelia's "Old Movies," a cute riff filled with the names of film stars that rhyme.
While Diamond's baritone may lack for power or great range, his articulation of lyrics is crisp and he sings with joy in his voice, as he displayed on "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," when his face lit up on the line, "All the sounds of the earth are like music." He sounded a bit like an Irish tenor on "Love Is A Song," from Bambi, but started to exhibit some vocal fatigue and lost his pitch a bit during a couple of mid-show Disney medleys. "Love Me Or Leave Me" is an intense ballad that he pushed a bit too aggressively, but he made a nice recovery with a lovely rendition of "Bill" from Show Boat, and he was strong on the ending of "With A Song In My Heart." Unfortunately, he brought nothing original to a pure karaoke version of "As Time Goes By" from Casablanca, or on a pedestrian "I'll Build A Stairway To Paradise."
"I still want to be that movie star, dammit," Diamond announced before his encore, "When I Grow Too Old To Dream." While the ship may have sailed on his goal of film glory, Bob Diamond is definitely not too old to keep singing.
Bobbie Horowitz: Great Songwriters Up Close, Metropolitan Room, March 9
As a rule, I'm not a fan of cabaret variety shows, but occasionally there are exceptions, and this one produced by songwriter Bobbie Horowitz (part of a semi-regular series at the Met Room) turned out to be a delightful way to spend a Sunday afternoon. After honoring Ervin Drake, John Meyer and Larry Livingston last October, Horowitz this time celebrated the songs of David Friedman, Sammy Timberg, and Richard A. Whiting.
It was a treat to have Friedman on hand to play piano on his own songs and the show fittingly opened with Horowitz singing the lyrics she wrote on "Doin' It For America," a cute exhortation to engage in rampant consumerism to help the economy. Friedman than performed "My Simple Christmas Wish," his hilarious anthem to celebrity envy and one's thirst for fame, probably the bazillionth time I've heard the song in a cabaret show. Of the three numbers written for musicals with lyricist Peter Kellogg, the standouts (thanks to charming performances from young singers Shauna Goodgold and John Wilkening) were "Dumb Blond" and "Black & White."
Bill Zeffiro took over the piano as Musical Director for a four-song tribute to Sammy Timberg--famous for writing music for cartoon characters such as Betty Boop and Popeye. The highlight here was Victoria Rae Sook's Betty-like version of "Don't Take My Boop Oop a Doop Away." Then Debbie Whiting, granddaughter of composer Richard Whiting (and daughter of the late singer Margaret) co-hosted the last solid section that began with her and Bobbie doing a duet on "Ain't We Got Fun," which followed with current cabaret stars Marissa Mulder ("My Ideal"), Eric Yves Garcia ("One Hour With You"), and Stacy Sullivan ("My Future Just Passed.") solidly performing three Whiting favorites. A group sing-a-long finale on "Too Marvelous for Words," was a nice touch.
Gretchen Reinhagen: Listen To The Music: The Songs of My '70s, The Duplex, March 18
Over the past year, the 1970s has been a very popular cabaret show theme, especially among singers wanting to musically reminisce about their childhood and teenage years. Veteran cabaret performer Gretchen Reinhagen tackled the period during her latest show at the Duplex, and by the end of it I couldn't imagine a set with a more bland collection of minor hits from a decade that was filled with classic pop and rock songs by iconic singer/songwriters. "Afternoon Delight." Really? Skyrockets in flight, this show was not--on any level.
Directed by Barry Kleinbort, who may be the most overrated show doctor in cabaret, the usually solid Reinhagen produced an effort that fell flat from the opening number, "Listen to the Music," which she started as a ballad. The easy listening banality, especially on songs such as "Wildfire," continued throughout the set. It didn't help that Reinhagen was saddled with a weak band, led by Musical Director Andrew Sotomayor, and pedestrian arrangements on songs such as Neil Sedaka's "Love With Keep Us Together." Her vocal on a '70s tune from a Broadway show, "Easy Street," from Annie, sounded more like Easy Screech, and a medley of Pink Floyd's "Money" and "Rich Girl" by Hall and Oates (connected to patter on the period's bad economy) was too static and lacked soul.
A nine-song "Disco Megamix" medley that could have been campy fun was just frantically mediocre karaoke, and during that section of dance beat songs that require even a smidgen of on-stage movement, Reinhagen never took the mic out of the stand. Following that mess, there was finally a true classic, and she held her own on Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Trouble Water," but it was too little, too late. By this point I was really weary, feeling bored.
Joan Curto: Sings Cole Porter, Metropolitan Room, April 5, 2014
An accomplished veteran cabaret performer from Chicago, attractive blonde Joan Curto brought her Cole Porter-themed show to New York in early spring for a one-nighter at the Met Room. While Curto is clearly a confident professional entertainer with a strong, sometimes jazzy, alto to mezzo range, New York cabaret audiences hear Porter songs in various types of shows constantly, so unless you're bringing to the Big Apple something truly original and unique to the genre, it's better not to think, "Let's Do It."
Curto's script included much of the Porter history and anecdotes that savvy New York cabaret audiences know in their sleep, so the success of the show would have to rely on her nailing many time-honored Porter hits. The result was a mixed bag; she was fine on a few ballads--as in a restrained, emotional rendition of "So In Love" from Kiss Me Kate--but she forced the humor and sassiness on songs like "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" and "Tale of the Oyster." "Laziest Gal In Town" came across like a Marlene Dietrich parody, and the arrangement of "I've Got You Under My Skin" (with Christopher Denny at piano) couldn't decide if it was jazzy or swing and the power of the great lyric got lost in the shuffle.
Among the best numbers were her take on "Night and Day," where Curto flipped the order of the first verse and the refrain, which helped build the song's intensity, a strong vocal on "In The Still of the Night," and a sweet version of her favorite Porter tune, "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," which should have been the button on the show. Adding a pedestrian arrangement of "Just One of Those Things" and a truncated audience sing-a-long on "Let's Do It" for an encore just proved to be overkill.
Colleen McHugh: Erly Barbara--Streisand in the '60s, The Duplex, April 24
At this year's MAC Awards in late March, Colleen McHugh couldn't personally accept her richly deserved Award for Musical Comedy (after four nominations without a win), having been hit with a severe throat infection that put her on vocal rest. I have to believe that when she performed her tribute to the early Streisand songbook a month later, she wasn't completely back in prime singing shape because this particular edition of her monthly "Calendar Girl" show at the Duplex wasn't nearly as compelling as her summer 2012 tribute to Judy Garland.
McHugh isn't an innately gifted vocalist, but she gets more out of the ability she does possess than almost any singer in cabaret. Combine that with her terrific improvisational comedy skills and her shows always make for an entertaining time. But in spite of solid support from Musical Director Tedd Firth on piano (who penned note for note arrangements of the original Streisand recordings) and Steve Doyle on bass, McHugh renditions of these Babs classics were inconsistent and she seemed to lack her usual on-stage confidence. While she was funny as always ("When I was a kid, I heard a singer who couldn't pronounce their Rs and I said, 'Wow, they let that lady make a record?'"), she wasn't always engaged with the audience and spent a lot of time singing from the piano crook as if it were a musical security blanket.
Among the show's best moments were McHugh nailing a laid back arrangement of "Cry Me a River," a lovely rendition of "He Touched Me," and a fun duet with special guest Cady Huffman playing the Garland part for the famous "Get Happy"/ "Happy Days" medley. I hate to rain on Colleen's parade because I'm a big fan, but this particular show just didn't make me dance.
Jamie Hartman: Dreams and Schemes, Don't Tell Mama, May 3
It's always a treat when you discover that someone you've known as a server at a club also possesses real talent. That's the case with Jamie Hartman, who when not delivering cocktails at the Metropolitan Room, has been polishing her powerful voice in variety shows (such as last year's Picture Perfect, a revue featuring the songs of Scott Evan Davis.) In February, the sensual young redhead launched her debut cabaret show at the Met Room and renewed the run this spring at Don't Tell Mama. Although the show and Hartman's performance had significant flaws--mostly owing to her relative inexperience--she displayed enough ability to be considered a Female Debut MAC Award nominee (although based on the dearth of talented candidates the past few years, MAC should permanently retire that award category).
While Hartman's show (directed by Lennie Watts, with some flashy piano from Jamie's boyfriend Carlos Homs) featured a random set list devoid of a real theme, she revealed a confident stage presence and a solid soprano on everything from contemporary pop (such as her opener, Natasha Bedingfield's "Unwritten") to Great American Songbook standards ("Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home"). One of the standout numbers was an adorable 10-song Disney medley the California-raised Hartman offered as a tribute to her father, the first "Tigger" at Disneyland.
But if Hartman dreams and schemes to improve as a vocalist, let alone a cabaret performer, she'll need to modulate the TV singing competition style belting and not deliver songs as if she's auditioning for musical theater roles. On numbers such as "Stormy Weather," Joni Mitchell's "California," and a misguided arrangement of her encore, "I'll Be Seeing You," Hartman didn't appear as if she was connecting with or conveying the lyrics. This is a terrific young singer with potential. The rest is still unwritten.
Sharon Hunter: Play Me--The '70s Men Through the Eyes of a Woman, Metropolitan Room, May 4
When I first saw this show at Don't Tell Mama last August, it contained so many flaws that I passed on a review. But Hunter is such a delightful personality that after she announced she was recording the set as a studio CD (to be released at her next show on June 9) and bringing the show back for another run (this time at the Met Room), I decided to give it another chance. Unfortunately, Hunter's effort celebrating her favorite male singer/songwriters of the 1970s was still just as clunky as the title of the show.
The set list seemed to be designed as if Hunter reached her hand into a box of mix-taped cassettes she recorded as a kid, plucked one out and shouted, "I think I'll do this show." While the title implies she's offering a female perspective on lyrics originally written from a male point of view, the show had no discernable story line, Hunter's patter was banal and repetitive, and she provided little insight into her passion for these particular songs or their iconic pop/rock songwriters. If ever a cabaret show was crying out for a strong director, this was it.
As a singer, Hunter is a solid alto to mezzo who pretty much hits all her notes, but most of the songs were devoid of lyrical interpretation or genuine emotion. Her solid four-piece band, led by Musical Director Barry Levitt on piano, was supportive but sometimes overpowering, and Hunter often sounded like she was the best singer in a group of friends celebrating a '70s reunion in a karaoke bar. It's possible that without the need to tell a story and with the help of recording studio production values, Hunter's upcoming CD might be a good listen, but it didn't work as a cabaret show.