BWW Review: Performing With Solid Partners--Tracy Stark and Maria Ottavia--in Separate Shows, Marcus Simeone Displays His Vocal Depth and Range
Cabaret shows built around the work of one composer, or a team of songwriters, are difficult to pull off. One obvious challenge facing the performer is to find new ways to keep well-known standards fresh-whether they jazz, pop, folk, or American songbook songs-and avoid comparisons to the originals. Vocalist Marcus Simeone, one of cabaret's most respected male singers, accomplished this in two separate shows featuring two different partners, establishing in each performance a depth of communication and identity that is rare in the art form.
Fourteen years since his debut at Don't Tell Mama, Simeone has evolved into a fearless singer who is able to climb inside any song and deliver it home with ease. Aside from eclectic solo work, he has also partnered with others over the years with mixed results. Currently, he has joined forces with two cabaret artists in two totally unrelated songwriter showcases running simultaneously in two different clubs. One salutes a controversial folk pioneer and the other pays homage to three Broadway icons.
At the Metropolitan Room, Simeone has been teaming up with Award-winning Musical Director/Vocalist Tracy Stark for On Sacred Ground: The Songs of Janis Ian, which pays tribute to one of the most inspired and unique songwriters to emerge from the 1960s and '70s. Stark has been an accompanist and songwriting partner for Simeone for several years (they won a MAC award for Song of the Year in 2012), and as Marcus points out during the show, Stark's looks reminded him of Janis Ian when they first met in cabaret more than a dozen years ago-and he's right.
Any show about Janis Ian requires some background about the lady who made her mark through painfully honest songs about acceptance long before it was politically correct. Her truthful observations on 1967s controversial "Society's Child," about an interracial romance forbidden by the girl's mother caused an explosion of controversy that even included the burning of an Atlanta radio station due to the taboo subject matter.
Ultimately, the song became a Grammy-winning hit that solidified Ian as a rising star. She was the first musical guest on Saturday Night Live in 1975, the year she released her hit "At Seventeen," which has became her most identifiable song. It tells about adolescent cruelty and illusions of popularity from the point of an ignored ugly duckling in high school . . . I learned the truth at seventeen, that love was meant for beauty queens . . . Such confessionals and her early songs expressing her dark angst secured Ian's place among female songwriters like Joan Baez, Odetta, and Carole King. The bulk of Ian's catalog involves wrenching ballads of isolation, sadness and the oblique parts of life. Director Lennie Watts deserves credit for guiding Simeone and Stark though an entertaining, relevant, and not overwrought show that overflows with gems not usually heard in cabaret and written by a master truth teller.For their September 13 opening night show with Simeone center stage and Stark (right in photo) mostly singing from the piano, the duo offered Ian's song Walking On Sacred Ground, about the rat race of life's changes . . . At first, I lost my way . . . caught between the silence and the thunder . . . I ran so hard to stay in place. Such reflections have always been a hallmark of Ian's songs that resonate with anyone who has stumbled in life. It sets the tone for a show theme of unbridled pathos through simple conversations between the performers interspersed with audios of Ian comments during interviews. This worked remarkably well because it was as if Ian was setting up her songs. At times, Ian's quotes sufficed without extraneous patter, but that's a minor quibble.
Marcus and Tracy scored their highest marks on lyrical communication. Both are committed to the material and getting it right, and musically, their voices blend well and made this a deceptively powerful show about a songwriter famous for understatement. There were so many lilting highlights throughout this show, including a duet on "Silly Habits," a rarity that won Mel Torme a Grammy Award in 1979 when he performed it with Ian. Simeone's soaring vocals are supple with the emphasis on expressive phrasing. In his solos, he glowed on a tender "Jesse," and when belting the mournful "When Angels Cry." On both, his vocals were ethereal and seamless. Stark, who possesses an earthy, warm-toned alto that is devoid of affectation, recalls Ian or a young Carole King. Her solo on "At Seventeen" was tender, as if she had written this confession about herself. Her take on "Society's Child," while accompanying herself center stage on acoustic guitar, became a poetic exercise phrased with a longing that created a highlight.
Simeone and Stark play off each other so well, at times the show was like a PBS special. Both had a lot of fun with "Married In London," a sassy song about marriage equality. Their duet on "Stars," Ian's longing ballad about aging turned into one of the evening's finest moments. ". . . Stars, they come and go . . . they live their lives in sad cafes and music halls . . . they always come out singing."
So why is this show special? Many of today's singers concentrate on technique. Consequently, the results are technically proficient yet emotionally chilly. Simeone and Stark never distance themselves from the listener. Instead, both sharpen blurred lines between imagery and reality on a beauty like "Getting Over You," and reveal elements of deep sadness in "Matthew," a song about Matthew Shepard (a young gay man who was killed in Wyoming in 1998). The songs and performance are so bold and truthful, they are simply riveting. The band sizzled with Stark's perfect arrangements. Kudos to Peter Calo on guitar, Joe Scarpitto on bass, and Mark Leitz on percussion. This is a show of challenging material that is worthy of expanding and moving to a larger venue. Upcoming shows at the Metropolitan Room are on November 21 and December 5, both at 7 pm.
Switching gears to a different musical world, Simeone has been teaming up at Don't Tell Mama with singer Maria Ottavia for their duo show, Rodgers, Hammerstein & Hart that is running again on November 15. Ottavia has long been acknowledge in cabaret circles for sweet soprano and warm, charming personality. While their musical styles are quite different, the pair put together a delightfully blended revue that flows with deft help from Director Collette Black. They wisely eschew analyzing these legendary songwriters or the famous shows the songs come from. Instead, it is a terrific, casual hour of oddly diverse groupings and silly puns. With Tracy Stark at the piano playing some exceptional arrangements, and the very talented Marco Brehm working hard on bass, the loose set sailed with a whimsical twist on some familiar classics.
Among the songwriters who have written iconic songs for the American musical theater, the collective genius of composer Richard Rodgers and his two lyricist partners, Oscar Hammerstein ll and Lorenz Hart, outdid even Irving Berlin and his ilk when it came to writing anthems for the theater that assumed the status of secular hymns. Their semi-operatic melodies and chiseled-in-stone lyrics on songs such as "Some Enchanted Evening," "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'," "If I Loved You," and "You'll Never Walk Alone," give advice, preach optimism, and impart adult wisdom.
This little cabaret show has its fair dose of classics. Unlike Simeone's more serious Janis Ian tribute shows with Stark, this carousel of riches might seem like a more ordinary, less profound side. However, Simeone and Ottavia have chosen to revise some high-powered gems in a goody-goody image and minimize gratuitous melodic and lyrical braggadocio in a musical carnival that stretches them both. While some inspirational warhorses like "The Sound Of Music" and Climb Every Mountain" are absent along with some declamatory love ballads like "No Other Love," "We Kiss In A Shadow," and "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," the show moves with simple good taste that complements the singer's strengths.
Showing a penchant for artsy simplicity and big ballads, the pair opened with an oddly spun medley that had Simeone crooning a laid back "Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin'"(Oklahoma) that gained in substance the more it built. Ottavia gently slipped in with a languid and imaginative Stark arrangement of the formidable "Some Enchanted Evening" (South Pacific). They wrapped these unrelated songs in perfect harmony into a full-voiced finale that left the room cheering. It was the first of several clever duets that flowed like fine wine, avoiding the stiffness and posturing often seen in similar revues of chiseled in stone songs.
The duo had fun with several off-the-cuff moments. A serious standout was Simeone's tour de force on an ingenious reading of "A Puzzlement" (The King and I). Here, he pulled out all the stops, turned into a musical comic showing off impressive acting chops, and was quite the surprise stretching himself into character as the King and delivered a riotous rendition of this showstopper. Who knew this often emotionally-charged singer had such a flare for comedy? Simeone shifted gears on "Thou Swell" (from A Connecticut Yankee), turning in a jazzy jaunt. A partial duet on Rodgers & Hart's "Mountain Greenery" (The Garreck Gaities) needed more zip. Ottavia's best moment came with a classically influenced "Something Wonderful."(also from The King and I). Her voice was crystalline and fluent. Singing the 1928 "You Took Advantage of Me" (Present Arms), she was spirited even if this called for more let-your-hair-down silliness. Other duets followed, like a great "Falling In Love With Love" paired with and an impressive "You'll Never Walk Alone" (Carousel), and were executed with skill. A conversational "Manhattan" might have been infused with more irony. A well-paced "I Have Dreamed" (which closed the show) tied it all together. Though minus the elaborate (and often tedious,) theatrical productions similar revues have had, the refreshing part here is the breezy lightness injected with so much heart that filled this intimate room with the sounds of music and giving it the simple charm it has.