BWW Reviews: With Crazily Introspective Shows, Michael Shea, Stacie Koby, and Amber Petty Bring March 'Madness' to The Duplex
While the frat boys parked their boozy asses in the bar car (aka the couch) for the long road to the NCAA's Final Four over the past few weeks, NYC's village cabaret club The Duplex offered an alternative "March Madness": Cabaret shows about being crazy. As a devotee of time on a different sort of couch, I was drawn in to three separate performances seeking some music therapy to get me through the tail end of a long winter.
Michael Shea's My Analyst Told Me, presented on March 21 as a benefit for the NYC Master Chorale, was a show about psychological health from the point of view of the analyst as opposed to the patient. Shea is a tenor as well as a practicing psychotherapist in Washington D.C. He must have his work cut out for him in the nation's Capitol, as our government officials are often in need of reality checks and emotional guidance. Standing before a house packed of admirers, he opened with Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse's "Feeling Good." "It's a new dawn, it's a new day, it's a new life . . ." he sang. "You look good too," one audience member shouted as the song ended. Shea proceeded to describe bearing witness to people's unfolding self-understanding, illuminating his pithy patter with an appealing, eclectic mix of pop songs and standards.
The show's title comes from the fabulous yet challenging Jon Hendricks/Annie Ross tune of the same name, the one song in the set Shea sung from the point of view of a clearly delusional character. Shea was obviously a fan of the cancelled TV show Smash, as several songs from the series made his set list, including Christina Aguilera's tender ballad "Beautiful," Carrie Underwood's inspiring song "Crazy Dreams," and "That's Life," on which Shea was joined in a duet by his terrific musical director, Jeff Hamlin. Their third show together, the two have developed an elegant fusion of their contrasting vocal colors. Shea possesses a clear, tempered tenor, while Hamlin's voice is pillowy and warm and their collaboration was generous and inclusive.
Shea and Hamlin blended beautifully on several songs, especially on Billy Joel's "Piano Man." Sure, it's a song I don't need to hear again, but their sincere take on the classic inspired the lively crowd to lift the battery-operated candles right off their table and wave them in the air like so many Zippos in an arena. Directed by Thea Kano (also artistic director of the Chorale), the show's thoughtful sequencing of songs allowed Shea to narrate the "humbling" work of "witnessing vulnerability" and the journey of opening to "possibilities . . . activating the imagination . . . acceptance . . . co-creating dreams," and finally, "finding a place in the world." The duo ended the uplifting program with a mash up of "Get Happy" and "Happy Days Are Here Again," breathing new life into some well-worn territory.
The evening was a refreshing exercise in restraint and reflection, a wise and kind offering. My Analyst Told Me was the exact opposite of a show about being bonkers. It was a show about waking to sanity and being connected.
On March 28, I was back at The Duplex to see Committed, performed by seven-months pregnant Stacie Koby. Oh, how I hoped this would be a musical detailing her time on the psych ward. Spoiler alert: Nope. "I'm not crazy," Koby, sings in her opening number, the Matchbox 20 chart-topper from 2003. Dang it. Just another neurotic perfectionist trying to figure out how not to be so self-obsessed so she can actually pay attention to her children as she continues her transition from artist-hopeful to domestic mother goddess. Adorable in her short black cocktail dress accentuating her trim form plus baby bump, Koby possesses a strong, well-trained, Broadway-style soprano that is well-suited to any number of Disney musical heroines. If Idina Menzel ever needs a voice double, this lady's the one to call. Committed spun a familiar yarn: First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage. But in highlighting how her anxiety threatened to derail this story at every turn-something of a cliché-Koby found some unexpected twists and turns along the way to domestic bliss.
Directed by Lisa Moss, Koby's high-revving energy was contained in the dynamic contours of the story. A standout moment was the hilariously irreverent "Go the F*ck to Sleep," a book written for desperate parents, set to music by Koby's musical director William Demaniow. Delivered deadpan serious and sung as a duet, it was a great choice. Demaniow also sang a perverse comic tune, "Please Don't Hand Me Your Baby," (by Sarah-Louise Young and Michael Roulston) basically because your baby's "ugly as sin." Awwwww.
Koby sang something of a parody of "Don't Rain on My Parade," with new lyrics placing the singer in the delivery room as she's giving birth, her terror giving way to confidence when she is able to think of herself as being in a spotlight, playing to an audience (of doctors and nurses), and performing Childbirth, The Musical. Not a relaxing soundtrack, overall, I imagine. But then, most of the show had a high-strung quality. However, Koby was able to let go into tenderness when she sang Sara Bereilles' "Hold My Heart" to her "anxious lunatic" father. Then it was back to worrying about dying during childbirth, sparked by a scene on Downton Abbey.
Koby's willingness to lay bare all her fears, worries, obsessions, and neuroses in a self-aware, smart, and humorous way was endearing and relatable. She ended the show by singing words of gathered wisdom to her children in a mash up of Alanis Morisette's "You Learn" and Pink's "Perfect." Clearly, being a mother is Koby's star turn, the role she is truly and forever committed to. The part is about to become juicier in the coming months. Koby may sometimes feel a bit insane, but she's gonna be just fine.
Koby will perform the show once more before giving birth, TONIGHT, April 9th at the Duplex (61 Christopher Street) at 7 pm.
Amber Petty, self-admitted weirdo, rounded out the triumvirate of the touched on March 29 with her show, We Don't Need Another Hero. Petty, currently starring as Anastasia in 50 Shades! The Musical (playing at the Elektra Theater in Manhattan), is a veteran of improvisational sketch comedy and took a night to do her thing, showcasing songs that treated us to her "odd taste from childhood."
Petty entered from the back of the house, singing "I Have Confidence" from The Sound of Music. As she took the stage she immediately fell on her ass, in what looked like a pratfall, but may have just been genuine klutziness. It didn't matter-the antic established Petty as an unwieldy, off-kilter presence who wasn't going to completely conform to decorum. A lovely woman in a green satin mini-ball gown and semi-tangled mane of curly dark hair, Petty was decidedly goofy. Singing her original tune "I'm Not Right," she swayed to and fro with increasing abandon, her hair flying, her dress sometimes flashing in that way that a ballroom dancer's does when she spins, and you hoped that what you were seeing underneath was meant to be public. Petty's playfully melodramatic "Loneliness Medley" was a hit parade of pop from Annie Lenox's "Why" to REM's "Everybody Hurts" to the classic "All By Myself."
Petty displayed her improvisational gifts throughout the show-her ad-lib patter bitter and funny and her carriage charmingly messy. She created unique and daring bits, such as her "Shitty Movie Medley," replete with special effects-gloves that lit up in the dark, and dancing with sparkly rhythmic gymnastic style ribbons. The pinnacle, though, was her improvised song, created from a story told by an audience member. Petty and her musical director Jody Shelton (hot in a Dave Grohl kinda way) proceeded to create a blazing pop ballad on the spot using language from the story and Petty's interpretation (the story was about the audience member having had a big crush on Tanya Harding back in the day, and was now clearly gay-Petty drew the link in her song). Petty included the best use of the kazoo ever in her "Can I Borrow a Feeling," originally sung by Milhouse's dad in an episode of The Simpsons, and tap danced "on the graves of agents" in "Hell Of It," "embracing her inner asshole."
Petty's big voice spans quite a range and has a pure crystalline high realm, but frequently goes flat on lower or longer held notes. Her vibrato often felt unnecessarily forced, and I wanted to put my hand on her shoulder and say, "Relax, weirdo, you're among friends. Don't try so hard." Aside from one unexplained duck into serious, heartfelt territory, We Don't Need Another Hero was a fearless, ungainly frolic traversing the terrain of an offbeat character finding her way.
As the romp through the final fruitcakes of the Duplex's March Madness came to a close, I felt none the nuttier for having immersed myself in the mania. I challenge the cabaret crooners out there to dazzle me next year with feats of freakiness that leave me questioning the world as I know it. Have this year's contenders paved the way for a possible new cabaret tradition? One can only hope.