Review: NEVER FAR FROM HOME: A Cabaret of New Songs

By: Jun. 22, 2013
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The Cabaret Series in Never Far From Home: Love Songs About Leaving

Original Script by Lydia Diamond, Directed by Megan Sandberg-Zakian, Musical Direction by Timothy Maurice, Scenic Design by Dahlia Al-Habieli, Lighting Design by Taylor Hansen; Sound Engineer, Sam Sewell; Stage Manager, Erin Basile

Featuring: Cheo Bourne, Jennifer Ellis, Brian Richard Robinson, and Kami Smith

Band: Tim Maurice, Piano; Christina Stripling, Cello; Zachary Hardy, Percussion

Performances through June 30 at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 866-811-4111 or

This much is clear: Brian Richard Robinson, Kami Smith, Jennifer Ellis, and Cheo Bourne like each other and you'll like them, too, when they sing their hearts out about going away from home, heartaches, and the trials of finding their way in the world while leaving their loved ones in the rearview mirror. Their voices blend together in close harmony and, when the friendly foursome flashes their awesome smiles at each other and the audience, they easily win us over. In a program of eighteen original songs by local songwriters, they show a range of vocal skills, an ability to poke fun at themselves and each other, and a variety of ways to grab our hearts and hold on.

Backed by the talents of Music Director Tim Maurice on the piano, Zachary Hardy on percussion, and Christina Stripling on cello (which adds incredible depth to the sound produced), Brian, Kami, Jen, and Cheo mix and match boy-girl, boy-boy, and girl-girl, as well as a few solo turns, after opening the show with a pair of upbeat tunes featuring all four of them ("Pack Up Your Suitcase" and "Green Line Ride"). With music and lyrics by Paulo K. Tirol, "Memorized" is mesmerizing, especially with the soulful rendition and longing gazes shared between Cheo and Brian. Things heat up when Kami and Cheo stir the pot with clever cooking metaphors in the bluesy "Sous Chef" by Deborah Henson-Conant.

After playing a jaded New Yorker ("Real New Yorker"), Jennifer gets the spotlight for a ballad ("Leave the Moon On") that showcases her lovely soprano. Midway through the song list, the four perform a pair of songs that veer off-topic, but are very amusing ("Cast Me" - music by Timothy Maurice, lyrics by De'Lon Grant; "Complaining" - music and lyrics by Henson-Conant). They follow with a melodramatic parody of Prince's "When Doves Die" ("When Dreams Die") which, judging by hysterical laughter, was an audience pleaser. (Unfortunately, I don't know the original song, so the humor was lost on me.) Brian's solo opportunities don't seem to suit his voice as well as many of the group numbers, but he knows how to deliver. The penultimate song (another by Henson-Conant) "Congratulations, You Made It This Far" is an uplifting, feel-good tune that brings to mind "The Bare Necessities" from Disney's The Jungle Book, and B-K-J-C nail the four-part harmony.

I love cabaret-style entertainment where the often surprising selection of songs seems to go on almost without end. However, the nature of the beast requires the singers to stop and talk between songs. In this instance, award-winning playwright Lydia Diamond scripted the through-story for the performers and, each of them being fine actors, they eagerly and earnestly recite the banter. The dialogue is an attempt to tie the songs together by positing that Cheo leaves Boston and a relationship behind to try to make it in New York. Recurring themes about Brian feeling ignored, Kami too easily falling in and out of love, Jennifer knitting too much, and Cheo being lonely recur too much. After Jen utters the word "meta" one too many times, this exchange says it all: Brian: "It's not funny anymore." Jen: "I didn't write it."

The Cabaret Series has been fusing music and story with a variety of themes since August, 2011, at the Central Square Theater, giving these local artists a wonderful platform to strut their stuff and bring contemporary audiences to the art of cabaret. Some of these new songs are more promising than others, but the caliber of musicianship and the amount of heart brought to the performances are beyond reproach. It was my first time at their party, but I hope they keep the series going until they're all ready to leave home.


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