BWW Review: Because He Can, Shawn Moninger Presents Cabaret Filled with Humor, Heart and Spirituality at the Metropolitan Room

BWW Review: Because He Can, Shawn Moninger Presents Cabaret Filled with Humor, Heart and Spirituality at the Metropolitan Room
Shawn Moninger commands the stage during his show
at the Metropolitan Room. Photo by Stephen Sorokoff.

It took 30 years for Shawn Moninger, a Unity minister and longtime technical director with four MAC awards, to move out of the booth and onto the stage. His show Because I Can (which has been running monthly at the Metropolitan Room since last November) is more a one-man Off-Broadway comedy show than typical cabaret. Almost without exception, the opening of a cabaret show is the weakest. Performers tend to warm up around the third or fourth number. That was not the case at the February 27 show, or as Moniger put it, "the Senior Citizen Happy Hour."

From the very first bar of the witty, bawdy "Plump and Juicy" (Benj Pasek/Justin Paul), Moninger's opening act guest, the immensely talented Kenneth Gartman (also a Musical Director/pianist), practically exploded with energy, leaving him out of breath for several minutes after the song. In a reference to his longtime battle with weight--Gartman has gained and lost 50 or so pounds five times--he joked, "I realized just how fat and out of shape I was when we choreographed that number." Gartman, ably accompanied by Carl Danielsen on piano, has the vocal power of a Broadway star with the nuance of a cabaret singer who knows how to connect with an audience in a smaller venue.

BWW Review: Because He Can, Shawn Moninger Presents Cabaret Filled with Humor, Heart and Spirituality at the Metropolitan Room
Kenneth Gartman opened Shawn Moninger's February 27
show at the Metropolitan Room.

Unlike comedians and rock musicians, cabaret artists rarely have "opening acts." Moninger sings only two songs at show's conclusion, so without Gartman's three songs, it would not be unfair to characterize Because I Can as pure standup. But Gartman's numbers, framed as they are by piercingly honest reflections on his Southern Baptist upbringing, ensuing rebellion, and spiritual struggles, were the perfect prelude to Moninger's tragicomic vignettes. And Moninger has been around the world of cabaret since 1985, so even when he's not singing, it feels like cabaret.

A sharp departure from "Plump and Juicy," with the melancholy "Want to Want" (Michael Roberts) Gartman touched on the risks of desire and misguided attempts to satisfy longing. The ballad provided a nice segue to "If I Can Dream" (Walter Earl Brown), which might well have been the title of Moninger's performing debut. After seven years with RuPaul's drag show in Europe, and a relatively successful career in New York, Gartman took a break from show business. When working with Reverend Shawn, Gartman was (lovingly) railroaded into a 10-day silent retreat: 10 hours of daily meditation and no reading, writing, speaking, or listening to music. (I could not help but wonder how the participants negotiated meals: did they grunt or point at food during chow time?) Gartman lasted four days. It was, in his words, "absolutely awful," but something good came out of it; Gartman rediscovered his "ability to dream."

With that, Gartman left the stage to deafening applause and Moninger launched his portion of the show with a touching photo montage set to the Valley of the Dolls film theme, tracing his evolution from hard-drinking, chain-smoking youngster in Pittsburgh, to Don't Tell Mama lighting and sound man, to pastor who found peace in the ministry and love with well-known songwriter, David Friedman. Speaking at a breakneck pace, he joked that his partner didn't recognize him in his baby pictures: "I thought you were born a bald old man!" Getting out of Pittsburgh was Moninger's goal from a young age as one who never doubted that he was gay, and who got spanked in the 4th grade for parading on the roof in his mother's heels. Cabaret, he joked, is a "step above porn in the respectability scale and a step below in the pay scale." In 1985, he arrived in New York (via Provincetown, MA), the "city of shoe stores and potential MAC awards" where you dream of "perform[ing] for a 20-buck cover and two-drink minimum." Such quips are typical of Moninger's self-deprecating and warm, but irreverent, wit.

BWW Review: Because He Can, Shawn Moninger Presents Cabaret Filled with Humor, Heart and Spirituality at the Metropolitan Room
Shawn Moninger with a comic bit about "fixing a fart problem."
Photo by Stephen Sorokoff

In contemplating whether or not to put on a cabaret show, Moninger asked himself, "What's special about me?" Anyone who goes to cabaret regularly has heard stories about Dickensian childhoods, turbulent love lives, and boozy, uneven careers. Who in the audience, he asked, came from a family with alcoholism or anger issues? Two-thirds raised their hands. What about bigotry? That was a smaller number. Then he asked, "Who dated his uncle in high school?" No one. Without a trace of self-pity, the performer proceeded with a "tragic but true" catalogue of unique experiences that drove home the point that he had "the right to be on stage."

"Dating his uncle" turned out to be a nice way of saying he was molested ("but dating sounds so much nicer," he laughed). Such jokes work because Moninger exudes love, joy, and most of all, peace. Having recently attended a cabaret in which child abuse jokes figured prominently (and failed just as spectacularly), it's clear to me that Moninger's risky material about childhood-and religion-succeed because he is no longer stuck in the past. We can therefore laugh with him because we don't have to worry about him. Parading your pain onstage, whether in standup or cabaret, isn't art; it's public therapy the audience must pay to watch.

The image of a gay 12-year-old boy in Pittsburgh reading and re-reading Jacqueline Susanne's iconic novel is itself funny. The idea that, next to the Bible, it was the book most influential in this minister's life is downright hilarious. Valley of the Dolls was like the Bible, full of sin, but with "a fabulous nightlife," in which everyone became a star. And who doesn't want to be a star?

Midway through the show, Moninger asked how many people were worried that he would talk about God? In an audience largely of friends (including friends from church), not many raised their hands. But in the event anyone objected, he said, "F*** YOU!" As technical director at Don't Tell Mama, he lit a show in which the performer discussed God and got slammed for it by a critic. This, he marveled, at a venue that ran a musical called Poop (he kept the script, presumably to prove such a show actually existed). But God forbid you speak favorably about religion, or its effect on your life. The material about Jesus is edgy and riotously funny. Noting that Jesus often seems "perturbed" in the New Testament, he interprets the son of God's commandment at the Bethesda Fountain (and elsewhere) thus: "Go forth, ya big dumb whore, and sin no more!"

Moninger moves seamlessly from the Biblical to the musical, via Queer as Folk (which he regards as an accurate portrayal of promiscuity in Pittsburgh). "Sore assh****" is the segue to some of the richest material in the show: stories of cabaret legends and unknowns over two-plus decades in the business. There was the overconfident performer convinced he would have a full house but finally resigned to reality ("four goddamn people?!"), the woman doing a improbable show about Marlene Dietrich in "a skirt hiked up to her p****", who wouldn't move the mic stand "because a lady would never do that." Moninger, with a raised eyebrow dishing as only a devotee of RuPaul can, "Well, a lady would never wear that dress."

Then there was the audience member in AA who objected to the two-drink minimum. "How much for a diet Coke?" she asked" [Eyeroll]. Uh, five bucks," he replied. Beat. "Okay, give me a double vodka." Stories about Bea Arthur and Martha Raye followed, along with an extended bit about Bobby Nealon, an outrageously flamboyant, chain-smoking fixture in cabaret now deceased.

What emerges from these colorful stories is that cabaret is like a family. Sometimes it functions and sometimes it doesn't. But the performer's jokes are never mean-spirited, even at their sharpest. I know a would-be standup comedian tax lawyer on Facebook, who co-wrote a moderately successful comedic take on finance. His stock line when ribbing liberals and conservatives alike is "I kid, because I love." Moninger embodies my friend's line; he loves deeply and broadly, and whether he's talking about the ministry or cabaret, that love is palpable.

BWW Review: Because He Can, Shawn Moninger Presents Cabaret Filled with Humor, Heart and Spirituality at the Metropolitan Room
In a mostly comic cabaret show, Moninger offered a poignant ballad
written by his partner, the acclaimed songwriter David Friedman.

Moninger's comedic ode to cookies, "The Cookie Song (Bring Me the Cookies I Need)," which he wrote (see video of a performance of the song in 2014 (above) precedes "We Live on Borrowed Time," a poignant ballad written by David Friedman, and sung by Barry Manilow and cabaret icon Nancy LaMott (at whose funeral the two met), among many others. The song captures one of the show's central themes: regret is futile. Moninger's only regret at this point, he joked, was never having bashed his nasty drunk stepfather over the head with a baseball bat in his sleep ("I'm not brave"). The only purpose this man served in his life was taking the family to church, where-at a different congregation-Moninger eventually found his home and career.

I'm not a big fan of self-help screeds with pronouncements about inspirational or positive thinking, or platitudes passing for wisdom, primarily because I think they do real damage by perpetuating denial and thwarting effective solutions. But this show inspired and touched me from start to finish. I was wiping away the tears from the moment Friedman began to play, and still sniffly by the standing ovation, which was entirely authentic. One's only possible regret about Because I Can is that it took Moninger so long to start performing. One hopes he'll continue to entertain us for years to come.

Shawn Moninger's show Because I Can is back at the Metropolitan Room on March 31, April 23, May 16, June 27 and July 28, all shows at 7 pm except 4/23 at 4 pm. For reservations, go to: www.metropolitanroom.com or call 212-206-440.

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