CABARET LIFE NYC: Watching Some 'Angels' Take Wing and Other Observations From a Cabaret Summer
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
One of the biggest downers perpetrated by American culture is the characterization of Labor Day weekend as the "unofficial end of summer." But given what has passed for cabaret entertainment--at least the shows I was able to attend--since the "unofficial start of summer" on Memorial Day weekend, the end of summer can't come soon enough.
It's not that I didn't experience some fine shows since my last seasonal review compilation at the end of spring. As chronicled in past critiques, I was thoroughly enchanted by Liz Callaway and Ann Hampton Callaway's recent Sibling Revelry at 54 Below, two different Jane Monheit sets at Birdland and 54 Below, Natalie Douglas at Birdland, and especially Jim Brochu's Character Man at the Met Room and the Lauren Fox produced Woodstock tribute show at 54 Below. I also enjoyed LA's Joanne Tatham at the Metropolitan Room (and who is set for four shows at the Café Carlyle in early October), Boston's Lynda D'Amour at Don't Tell Mama, and young jazz heartthrob Devin Bing at the Met Room. It was also a treat revisiting the engaging and charming shows of lovely ladies of cabaret like Laurie Krauz (Tapestry Rewoven at the Met Room), Rosemary Loar (When Harry Met the Duke at the Met Room), Charlotte Patton (Looking for Love in the 21st Century at The Duplex), and Barbara Porteus (Up On The Roof at Don't Tell Mama).
Two shows that I hadn't yet reviewed but that were deliciously entertaining were New York cabaret veteran Ricky Ritzel (photo right) with his Sings Elaine Stritch at Don't Tell Mama (July 31), and Scranton, PA's Rich Jenkins with his band at the Met Room (August 29). Given Ritzel's on-stage flamboyance, passionate piano playing, and vocals that sound like he never met a cigarette he didn't like, it wasn't much of a stretch for him to do Stritch, and his endearing homage to the Broadway musical legend was filled with panache, humor and musicianship. Relatively unknown in New York cabaret, Jenkins' set was a pleasant surprise, even if it was more a lounge act than a cabaret show. Playing guitar and singing in a style that's a cross between Randy Newman and David Lee Roth (with some Ricky Ritzel thrown in), Jenkins fronts a solid five-piece band (especially Mark Woodyatt on violin and Kenneth McGraw on piano) that offers jazzy or bluesy versions of standards from "Ain't Misbehavin'" to "Night and Day" to "Fly Me To the Moon" (in addition to a couple of Jenkins' cool original songs). Jenkins and company is definitely a group to check out the next time they're in town.
While all of the above may sound like an embarrassment of riches, there were also more than a handful of plain embarrassments; sets that were so hopelessly mediocre they weren't even interestingly bad enough to review. Either the cabaret rooms are booking too many shows or I've become a cabaret shopaholic with no sales resistance. No doubt it's a combination of both so there obviously needs to be a better display of judgement on both ends of the equation.
My dismay over the hours lost watching average shows this summer was tempered a bit by the pride and joy I felt watching the June performances of three strikingly attractive and talented 30ish brunettes with powerhouse voices, who are among my "discoveries" that I cast (or, in one case, considered for the cast, but she was otherwise booked) for my mid-May variety show, Stephen's Angels at Iridium. Jackie Kristel and Karen Gross (who I met a few years ago through cabaret singing workshops produced by Director Collette Black's Manhattan Cabaret Arts), and Jodi Beck (who I first heard when she made it to the Final 10 out of 48 singers--and should have finished higher--at the 2012 Metrostar Talent Challenge) all staged entertaining shows as spring was turning to summer and it will be fascinating to see if my "Angels" eventually get their cabaret wings. (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)