BWW Reviews: Karen Wyman Becomes Cabaret's Comeback Queen With 'Second Time Around' at Metropolitan Room
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
When I was a third-grader at P.S. 64 on Walton Avenue near 170th Street in the Bronx (a few long relay throws north of Yankee Stadium), little did I know that there was a sixth-grade girl from my neighborhood who just five years later would be singing on national television with Dean Martin and appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show. It's probably a good thing we never connected then because being that I already had an interest in older women, I might have gotten a major crush on her and that's not good when you're 8 and want to focus on baseball. When that girl became a teenage singing sensation, she was also going to William Howard Taft High School, the same school my mother had attended about 20 years earlier. And a little less than a decade before that Taft had another fairly prominent student who became a famous singer. Her name was Eydie Gorme.
My mom had a wonderful singing voice (she probably could have been a pro had she not done something silly, like getting married at 19 and giving birth to me at 20) and naturally, since they were Bronx and high school "homies," Eydie Gorme was one of her heroes. As I was growing up, my mom sang around the house all the time, mainly to Eydie records. It kind of drove me crazy, especially when I really started getting into Rock n' Roll in the summer of 1967 and my stereo began a healthy competition with my parents' record player. I would constantly plead with mom to stop singing ("Mom, c'mon, I'm listening to the Beatles!"), even though I knew she was really good.
So last night at the Metropolitan Room, as I listened to Karen Wyman, my former P.S. 64 schoolmate who I never knew, positively nail a medley of Eydie Gorme's greatest hits, all those memories of my mom and the Bronx careened through my mind and made me smile. And, of course, I emitted an audible and knowing belly laugh when after a medley of "Just One of Those Things," "Gotta Move," and "By Myself," Wyman admitted, still possessing traces of an endearing Bronx accent, "I sang in the car for the last 23 years because my kids didn't want me to sing in the house." If this wasn't some weird version of "Six Degrees of Separation," it was something eerily akin to that.
The reason why Karen Wyman was singing in the car for a bit more than two decades was because she hadn't performed a full show since a gig in Atlantic City in 1989. But hadn't her career taken off after Dean Martin and Ed Sullivan and The Tonight Show and a couple of albums (photo, right)? Are you kidding? Wyman was in her late teens and singing like Eydie Gorme when all the kids were listening to Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Judy Collins and Carole King. Eydie Gorme could sing like Eydie Gorme because she had a 20-plus year head start and a fan base from my mother's generation. And if Rock n' Roll wasn't enough to halt Wyman's singing career in its tracks, she got married, had a son at 21 and basically became a full-time mom. Damn, what is it about these Jewish girls from the Bronx who give up singing to raise kids?
Last January, more than four decades since Dean, and with three marriages in the rear view mirror, Karen Wyman emerged from performing hibernation, picking up the microphone at Jim Caruso's "Cast Party" at Birdland. She sang the ballad she performed on Ed Sullivan, "Why Can't I Walk Away," from the little-known 1968 musical Maggie Flynn, which ran for only 82 performances on Broadway (Cool trivia note: It starred Shirley Jones and her then husband Jack Cassidy.) The song is very much in the style of "What Did I Have That I Don't Have," and "If He Walked Into My Life," those show tunes that were hits for Eydie, and Wyman had the denizens of Birdland tweeting her praises for days (see video below). Then came a couple of brief and well-received appearances at places like 54 Below and The Dutch Treat Club and it was clear Wyman was on track for her solo show comeback.
On October 26, Wyman debuted The Second Time Around at the Metropolitan Room and brought it back last night for a two-show run ending tonight. "So nu?" as Jews from the Bronx might say when they want to start kibitzing, "How did it go?" Let's put it this way: If MAC and the Bistros and the Nightlife Awards and even the BroadwayWorld New York Cabaret Awards had a category for "Comeback of the Year," it wouldn't be a contest. Wyman would walk away with the whole meshpucha. You'd never know this woman hasn't been singing in front of audiences for 23 years. Maybe it took chutzpah to get back on the live performance horse, but the vocal instincts and the belting ability are as strong as ever, her intonation and delivery of lyrics pitch perfect, and she's still you-just-want-to-pinch-her-cheeks adorable. But now, after an adult life filled with its share of trials, tribulations, and traumas around the joys of having two children, Wyman can bring a mature understanding and interpretation to lyrics of songs she's been singing since her teens. (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)
Taking the stage wearing a flaming red blouse over black slacks, the raven-haired comeback cutie told a packed Met Room that this was "My second chance, my second take, my second life," and then proceeded to prove that there are second acts for former singing prodigies. She began the show conveying the swinging vocal style of those great Gorme-like nightclub singers of the '40s and '50s, getting the audience swaying to Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn's "The Second Time Around," Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh's "The Best Is Yet to Come," and an up-tempo arrangement of Cole Porter's "Night and Day," offered with so much energy Wyman was almost out of breath by the end, but took the audience's breath away in the process. As she delivered these three songs, her joy for being back on stage and singing at such a high level came through loud and clear. Once she fearlessly established that the belt was back, she went soft and supple on her Musical Director John Oddo's seductive arrangement of "After You've Gone," and seemed to hold that last note on "Awaaaayyyy" longer than she'd been away from singing. Here, as they did throughout the show, Oddo on piano, Dick Sarpola on bass, and Eddie Caccavale on drums provided superb musical support, and Oddo's arrangements were ideally suited to Wyman's vocal style and strengths.
You'd think that by the second half of the show someone who has been on the vocal shelf as long as Wyman would start losing steam. "Feh!" as my Russian Jewish grandmother might say. This bubula was just getting started. Wyman's last song on her mesmerizing Eydie Gorme medley was her personal farewell to the legend (who died in August just before her 85th birthday), a powerful yet tender rendition of "Softly, As I Leave You."
Then Wyman left it all out there on a swinging arrangement of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's "Come Rain or Come Shine," only to transition into a beautifully restrained take on Irving Berlin's "Always," during which Wyman caressed the notes like a mother would caress a child with unconditional love. When she sang her signature power ballad "Why Can't I Walk Away?" as the show's finale, one could only be thankful that Karen Wyman decided not to walk away from singing forever.
Now that she's established herself as the Comeback Queen of Cabaret, Wyman has the potential to be one of the nightclub scene's veteran standouts--in the Marilyn Maye and Andrea Marcovicci mold--if for her next effort her director (Dennis Deal guided this one, but it was difficult to discern his stamp on the show) can help her establish a solid theme and storyline and smooth out the rough edges on the script. But Wyman's conversational, seat-of-the-pants patter (perhaps appropriate for this particular show) was just a minor quibble with what was a compelling concert and a totally inspiring comeback performance.
Way to go, home girl.
Photos by Russ Weatherford
Karen Wyman: The Second Time Around will be back at the Metropolitan Room on Saturday night, December 21 at 7pm. $25 music charge plus two-drink minimum. For reservations, book online at www.metropolitanroom.com or call (212) 206-0440.