How To Be Perfect: Relationship Advice From Lesser Known Showtunes
As soon as I glanced over the song list for their cabaret show, How To Be Perfect, I knew Brian Tom O'Connor and Debra Vogel were my kinda people. With more than half their selections coming from flop or otherwise obscure musicals such as Tovarich, So Long, 174th Street and Dance a Little Closer, I took my first sips of vodka martini anticipating a welcome evening with seldom-heard friends.
O'Connor and Vogel are not the type of performers you normally have in mind when you think of New York cabaret. They're musical comedy character actors; a tall, husky, sweet-faced fellow with a light baritone and a graceful stride paired with a brash, curvy belter with that funny outer-boroughs ethnic charm. Picture a 1960's television special starring Jackie Gleason and Nancy Walker and you'll get an idea of the dynamic between these two talented clowns and the style of show they present.
How To Be Perfect spoofs self-help gurus who preach the dos and don'ts of successful relationships. From the pangs of love at first sight (Lee Pockriss and Anne Croswell's "Uh-Oh!"), to awkward first phone calls with prospective internet dates (Stan Daniels' "It's Like"), to the importance of mutual communication (Jonathan Larson's "Therapy"), the duo uses theatre songs (sans microphones, by the way) as examples of the pitfalls and pleasures of romance.
The tone of their humor (co-authored with director Elfin Frederick) is, and I don't mean this in a bad way, exceedingly cute. This isn't a show built on the scathing wit of jaded and jilted urban sophisticates. No, the jokes are gentle, clean and delivered with an appealing sense of good-natured fun.
Highlights include O'Connor as a sleazy pick-up artist winking his way through Charles Strouse and Lee Adam's "The Woman For The Man" and a rousingly funny rendition of Stan Daniel's "You", a song that combines every standard love song title imaginable. ("You were meant for me / Just tea for two and two for tea / You're the cream in my coffee / You are my lucky star / The dearest things I know are what you are") But the two are at their best when they get to show off their acting chops in the Tom Jones/Harvey Schmidt musical scene "Nobody's Perfect" from I Do! I Do!. This extended sequence, originally performed by the likes of Mary Martin and Robert Preston, is now given a fresh, lowbrow spin.
If there's a flaw in the evening, it's that Elfin's direction and Nora Brown's musical staging are a bit too basic while musical director Darryl Curry's arrangements all sound pretty much the way you hear the songs on original cast albums. This is especially critical during ballads, where phrasing and interpretations could be created which are more suited to the two stars. As fine as they are as musical character comics, both had moments during more dramatic numbers where their voices seemed stretched a bit beyond their capabilities.
But the main point of How To Be Perfect is to deliver the laughs, and that's what O'Connor and Vogel do best. They're a lovable pair of old-style musical comedy comics with excellent taste in lesser known showtunes.
Photo by Josh Yu