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BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below

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The popular series returns with fabulous performers and fierce vocals.

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below

When first you see the title of the show PRONOUN SHOWDOWN you might think it's one of those gender-swap cabaret evenings... and it is but only incidentally because the popular 54 Below series is more like a "swap everything" production where the stories being told can actually go any direction at all - hence the recent sixth edition of the show. Producers Kimberly Jenna Simon and Abby DePhillips should be proud of their accomplishment (and thrilled to spend so much time with baller Musical Director Benjamin Rauhala) because not only was the supper club packed to capacity Tuesday night, and rightly so because Pronoun Showdown is a fluffy night of entertainment, well-programmed, planned and performed.

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below Curating an interesting group of performers from The Broadway (Christy Altomare), Off-Broadway (Joe Kinosian), and the touring circuit (Pierre Marais), the outgoing and fashionable Misses DePhillips and Simon served up musical numbers ranging from a few years back (Grease) to a little more current (Six), some inventive pageantry, and eyebrow-raising vocals. As a person attending their first-ever Pronoun Showdown, it did take a few minutes to settle in to the intention and get used to hearing songs so well known with the new spin created by the changes being made to the lyrics. Fortunately, Ms. Simon herself took the second number of the evening and chose one universally known ("Beauty School Dropout") to assist the newcomers to the concept in getting their heads in the game. I couldn't help but wonder if it is more difficult to get into the swing of things if a guest at Pronoun Showdown doesn't know every single song from every single musical, the way this guy does. I got my answer when Joey Labrasca, Pierre Marias, Anthony Sagaria, and Jonathan Young performed a wildly complicated Taylor Swift medley. Not being up on my Taylor Swift, I missed a lot of the jokes and had to settle for the boys' performances and what I could glean through assumption and on-the-spot lyric mathematics. Perhaps another audience member whose tastes run to pop music might have better understood the Swift and the Spears segments, while wondering what the heck was going on when Josh Breckenridge appeared onstage in wolf ears to sing "I Know Things Now" from Into the Woods... but that's all part of the fun of Pronoun Showdown, a program clearly designed for giggles and grins.

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below
Antonio Cipriano sings "Defying Gravity" from Wicked

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below Don't be mistaken: it's not all laughs at Pronoun Showdown. There are plenty of heartbreakers, like Gabrielle Carruba's "Words Fail" or Antonio Cipriano's sufficiently dramatic "Defying Gravity" but the main focus in the program does tend toward the flashy and the funny, like Sam Gravitte taking on the role of Cinderella's Prince to share the master plan he applied "On the Steps of the Palace." Whatever story came up onto the stage with each actor, it was vocally executed to perfection thanks, in no small part, to Musical Director Rauhala, who keeps the singers en pointe the entire time, while watching them like a hawk, in case their acting instincts steer them in a new direction in real-time, something that every singing actor knows is an option with Rauhala at the wheel, which must be a comfort to each performer to stand before Benjamin's Piano.

And the acting was exquisite... from the actors who arrived prepared. Not everybody arrived prepared.

I am going to approach this next section as gently as I possibly can, with as much grace and loving care as I possibly can, and since tone cannot be communicated in print, I encourage all to infuse into the rest of this article a tone of loving and benevolent concern, for that is what is in my heart as I write.

In the pre-pandemic world, I began what sometimes feels like a one-man crusade against the use of lyric sheets, music stands, tablets, and iPhones during performances. I wrote about it at length and critiqued, severely, performers who came to work unprepared, so much so that I was labeled a bully on a few social media pages; I got my wrist slapped and was told to play nice with the other kids. Since returning from the shutdown, I have remained reserved in the open disdain I have for the epidemic of actors reading their shows off of anything other than the inside of their brain, even exercising the option of telling some clubs that I would not review a show because the performers were reading their script and their lyrics off of a device or music stand. I don't want to be a bully, I want to be a nice guy, I want to be a champion of the arts and the artists, so I'm going to write this without criticizing the actors, and I'm going to say this without snark or derision or even a hint of humor. I'm going to say this as lovingly, as gently, and as straightforwardly as I possibly can.

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below
Samantha Pauly sings "Thank Goodness" from Wicked

At some point, somewhere along the way, somebody told a cabaret performer that it was ok to read their lyrics off of a music stand during their performance. That is simply not true. It's not ok. It's acceptable in a symphony hall when singers are performing a classical opus or choral piece, and it's ok at the Encores! Series, where part of the mission statement of the program is that the actors carry their scripts. But it's just not ok in a cabaret room. The sole purpose and greatest benefit of seeing a show in a cabaret room is the intimate connection with the artist on the stage and the thrill that, at any moment, they might look into your eyes, relate to you, sing to you, make you a part of their story. None of that happens when a performer's exclusive relationship on the stage is with their lyric sheet. I know everyone is busy. I know there's a lot of stuff that everybody has to do during the day. Heck, at Pronoun Showdown the fierce AF Samantha Pauly literally rushed over to 54 Below after a performance of Six and delivered a ferocious performance of her song... which she read off of a music stand. I feel for Ms. Pauly, and I feel for every other actor in eleven other numbers who worked with a music stand positioned between them and the audience. But I feel for the audience more. Because even though these beautiful, gifted, talented actors are busy with other things and don't have time to learn their lyrics, somebody else is busy: the lady in the front row who spent all night looking up at the elevated stage and saw only the undersides of music stands. She and the other people in the front row, and throughout the club, are busy, too; they are busy going to work to make the money that they will pay to see a show at 54 Below, while paying money to eat the food and drink the drinks at 54 Below. And they spent that night looking at music stands, even when Christy Altomare, Joey Labrasca, and some of the other actors who knew their words didn't need a cheat sheet and could invest themselves into their storytelling, those doggone music stands were still right downstage, blocking everyone's view. Thank goodness for Katie Rose Clarke, who got up on the stage and said, "Watch me forget my words, now" as she moved the music stand upstage and away from her, where it could create no barrier between her and the audience - and when she sang "If I Didn't Believe In You" from The Last Five Years, she gave that crowd a full performance worthy of a Broadway stage, and the best storytelling of the entire evening.

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below
Katie Rose Clarke sings "If I Didn't Believe In You" from The Last Five Years

Of course, there are always going to be exceptions. I once saw an aged and infirm Tammy Grimes sit on the stage of the Metropolitan Room and read her entire show from a script, and she was magical. There are times when new lyrics have been turned over to Marilyn Maye or Melissa Errico at the last minute. Sometimes a performer has to step in for somebody with little or no notice. Perhaps there is a complicated number, like this very night when Joe Kinosian brought the house down with an epic performance of "Ex-Wives" that included choreography - and Mr. Kinosian did the number with that cheat sheet right there... but he only looked at it a couple of times, an admirable achievement if ever there was one. Yes, there are exceptions. But they should be exceptions. It should not be the rule for actors to stand on a stage and read their story to the audience, especially inside of a show where someone else has said, "This is our first time back on a live stage in eighteen months." There was time to learn the words.

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below
Joe Kinosian sings "Ex-Wives" from Six

I realize that this dissertation on the use of cheat sheets will most likely fall on deaf ears because human nature has always been disinclined to change, and since that one person, all those years ago, said that it is acceptable to perform in this way, people will continue to do it. They will continue to do it until the producer of their show tells them to stop, until the director, the musical director, the booking agent or the club owner says, "Dude, that's not the way it's done." Until that time, the epidemic will continue, and audiences will continue to be cheated out of the full cabaret experience that was within our power to give them, and it should be a privilege, a goal, an ambition to give them that experience.

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below
Pierre Marais, Joey Labrasca, Jonathan Young, & Anthony Sagaria sing "Taylor Swift Medley"

Now, I am sorry that this conversation had to come out during a write-up for PRONOUN SHOWDOWN because it's an awesome show, and I can't wait till the next installment. So, even though this particular night at Pronoun Showdown sent me down the rabbit hole, I want to end this story on a note of praise for Abby, Kimberly, and Benjamin because their show this week was enjoyable. The concept for the series is cool, the singers are talented, the songs are well-curated, and I am a newly-formed fan. I do and will encourage anyone to attend a night out at Pronoun Showdown, and that is an endorsement that comes from the deepest place of my heart, right along with everything else in this article: from the most loving, gentle, and honest place of my heart.

Find great shows to see at the Feinstein's/54 Below website HERE.

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below
Anthony Sagaria sings "Her Voice" from The Little Mermaid

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below
Kimberly Jenna Simon sings "Beauty School Dropout" from Grease

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below
Chris Medlin sings "Burn" from Hamilton
BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below
Josh Breckenridge sings "I Know Things Now" from Into the Woods
BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below
Christy Altomare sings "Carrie" from Carrie

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below
Antonio Cipriano sings "Michael In The Bathroom" from Be More Chill

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below
Pierre Marais sings "Toxic"

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below
Joey Labrasca sings "Champagne Problem"

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below
Sam Gravitte sings "On The Steps Of The Palace" from Into the Woods

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below
Amber Ardolino sings "Before He Cheats/Maneater/Jolene"
BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below
Lauren Nicole Chapman & Amber Ardolino sing "Before He Cheats/Maneater/Jolene"
BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below
Lauren Nicole Chapman, Jonathan Young & Amber Ardolino sing "Before He Cheats/Maneater/Jolene"

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below
Gabrielle Carruba sings "Words Fail" from Dear Evan Hansen

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below
Nathan Lucrezio & Oyoyo Joi sing "Pop Rock Medley"

BWW Review: PRONOUN SHOWDOWN Makes Sold-Out Return To Feinstein's/54 Below Photos by Stephen Mosher


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