BWW Reviews: Hot Latin Music and Incredible Talent Shine in Upright CabaretÂ's RHYTHM OF THE NIGHT At The Annenberg Theatre
Last night The Annenberg Theatre played host to Chris Isaacson's Upright Cabaret and the latest installment of his American Icon Series, RHYTHM OF THE NIGHT, which pays tribute to the Latin pop-rock music made famous by Gloria Estefan, Ricky Martin, Santana and more. There were many things to love about this upscale Cabaret production! To start – the incredible talents of three of Broadway and Television's hottest talents – Lesli Margherita, Rogelio Douglas Jr. and Lexi Lawson. I have played audience to each of the three of them as they starred in various theatrical productions and it was a pleasure to share the evening with them in this unique genre. Since there is a bit of criticism to follow, let me start by saying I am a big fan of Upright Cabaret and would urge you to go to any of their productions at a venue near you. Fortunately for those near La Mirada, Thousand Oaks or Hollywood, you still have the chance to see this high quality production. And, if you don't have tickets yet I would say find a way to get them! There are many theatrical events in Southern California that promise an evening worthy of your time and your hard earned money --- Upright Cabaret delivers!
The three artists were backed by a pretty stellar Rhythm Section – Matt Lucich on Drums, Carter Wallace on Bass, Justin Smith on Guitar and Musical Director Jamieson Trotter on Piano. Trotter, with his intensely passionate mastery at the keyboard, was great fun to watch throughout the evening and, in fact, his bouncing mane of curly hair --- hard to miss during any high-energy number -- nearly became a fourth performer in the show. Trotter was also credited with all of the arrangements which were, for the most part, very strong --- however nearly every arrangement had an obligatory musical break that seemed, in many cases, to wander on too long --- especially since there were no trumpets or strings or percussion instruments to add the interest necessary in this kind of music. It would be a great investment to add a trumpet!! And some judicial editing of the band arrangements would suit the show well for future incarnations.
The show was hosted by the charismatic and engaging producer, Chris Isaacson. I believe that he might have done well to take on more of the "between song banter" because the cast often looked to be floundering a bit and unsure about which song and which singer came next. To their credit – they kept it rolling --- but perhaps a more well-crafted script and the talents of Mr. Isaacson would help the flow.I realize that this was first performance and things will all "improve with age" for the balance of the run.
The sound mix was uneven – mostly erring in favor of the band and oft times leaving the artists to strain to sing over the orchestration. I think more careful attention needs to be paid to the mix so the artists are not forced to scream over the band in all of the really driving numbers – and, in some cases, still not be heard effectively. The lighting was perfectly suited to the feel of the evening and the multi-media visuals which served as a backdrop to the artists throughout the show were the perfect compliment and added much slickness to the cabaret.
This production is consistently strong. The artists were on fire during the opening number "The Rhythm Is Gonna Get You" and their harmonies, when you could hear them over the mix, were right on the money. Their energy and enthusiasm was contagious. Lesli Margherita's "Anything For You" perfectly showed off the wonderful raw quality of her vocal style – she brought an actor's perspective to the pop tune and gave it an extra depth, although the emotion, at times, seemed a little contrived. She also scored with "Get On Your Feet" however this was one of those cases where the orchestra breaks were excessive and she was forced to dance around the stage a bit awkwardly while waiting to come back in with the vocal again … and again. Perhaps her finest moment was "Coming Out Of The Dark" which was stunning.
Lexi Lawson has a winning exuberance and a golden voice to match. It seemed that much of the Gloria Estefan music more appropriately suited her vocal style than Ms. Margherita as she was born to sing the necessary pop licks with ease. Her "Turn The Beat Around" and "Tell Me What You Want Me To Be" were both notable – but her finest vocals came in a duet with Rogelio Douglas Jr. of Ricky's Martin's "La Vida Loca". That was probably the most successful song of the night and the audience reaction bore that out. Her only questionable moment was appearing onstage and briefly dancing to Rogelio's "Black Magic Woman" which seemed to be both unnecessary and a bit awkward.
Rogelio Douglas Jr. stole the show with his smooth vocals, dance moves and million dollar smile. His "Change Your Evil Ways" and "Black Magic Woman" were both stand-outs and his Tap Dance Riffs (in a duel with the drummer) were ovation worthy. He has charm for days and was given the right material to show it off. His Ricky Martin duet with Lexi Lawson was his finest moment as well.
The banter. It should be cut unless one of the artists truly has something interesting to say. Between song stories and banter are formulaic to Cabaret – but there were times when the artists seemed to be reading "for the first time" from Wikipedia and grasping at straws to find something of worth to say. Sometimes it might be better just to go from song to song --- and instead of filling time with meaningless chatter, add another musical number for these spectacular singers.
The music stand with all of the production notes, dialogue and lyrics. I'm not certain if the artists were given songs too late in the game to memorize the lyrics --- but the music stand notebook became a crutch and every time any artist looked into the book to find their way, they lost the emotional and vocal arc of their song and hence lost some of the magic. Given, there was a lot of music. But the artists should have the time and rehearsal necessary to deliver a more solid MEMORIZED performance. It cheats the audience just a bit from a totally polished and emotionally connected performance.
Finally --- the cast seemed to work too hard at getting the audience to go along with them. Repeated requests for the audience to shout along or clap along or "get on their feet" and multiple artists asking the audience if they were having a good time became tiresome. Because the Annenberg is a proscenium stage rather than a traditional Cabaret setting, some of the intimacy of a Cabaret Room falls to the wayside. But I would urge the artists to allow the audience to enjoy the show in whatever way they feel comfortable and not insist on audience participation as the measure of success. The audience LOVED the show --- but at times they felt they were being told otherwise.
As I said before – I am a BIG FAN of Upright Cabaret! This is a first class production and a real crowd pleaser. I know that Upright Cabaret is building a very enthusiastic and faithful following in the desert and I look forward to their many future productions, including VIVA LAS VEGAS in June. I would urge you to run out and get a ticket for RHYTHM OF THE NIGHT and support maestro Chris Isaacson and this very talented ensemble. Kudos too to Production Manager, Ronn Goswick.
You still have your chance to see RHYTHM OF THE NIGHT at:
Sun, April 29, 2012 at 7:30pm LA MIRADA THEATRE FOR PERFORMING ARTS La Mirada, CA Box Office (562) 944-9801
Sat, May 5, 2012 at 8:00pm (Cinco de Mayo) THOUSAND OAKS CIVIC ARTS PLAZA Thousand Oak, CA Box Office (800) 745-3000
Sun, May 6, 2012 at 7:30pm CATALINA JAZZ CLUB Hollywood, CA Box Office (818) 736-5600