Brandon Cutrell: No Reservations
One of the best benefits of frequenting piano bars like The Duplex is that one often gets to see the next generation of cabaret artists as their stars ascend. Kate Pazakis made waves in January with her autobiographical The Sexless Years, and earlier this month her cohost of the Duplex's Mostly Sondheim series, Brandon Cutrell, brought back his acclaimed show No Reservations for two all-too-brief nights. Living up to the title of the piece, Cutrell doesn't hold back on his song or style choices and, with Phil Geoffrey Bond's strong direction, makes the evening an unexpected joyride through many emotional landscapes.
Blessed with a voice like raw silk and a mischievous smile that can fill a stage on its own, Cutrell not only does justice to the composers' work, he may be a lyricist's best friend. He takes special care with the text of the songs, finding nuance in the words and putting the emotion of the song front-and-center. Whether performing witty, saucy jazz numbers ("TV Is The Thing This Year" by William Sanford and Phil Medley, or Michael John LaChiusa's "See What I Want To See"), energetic comedy ("A Summer in Ohio" from Jason Robert Brown's The Last Five Years), songs of excruciating embarrassment ("Hello, Tom" by Brian Lasser) or heartbreaking ballads (a medley of Reid/Shamblin's "I Can't Make You Love Me" and Michael McDonald's "I Can Let Go Now"), Cutrell performs with honest emotion so pure it can leave an audience breathless. His rendition of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car," not an obvious choice for a cabaret, is particularly effective, emphasizing the emotional arc of the song from hopeful to hopeless. Similarly, Cutrell vividly brings back all of the many complex emotions of the teen years with Lasser's "Hello, Tom," an unconventional half-a-telephone-conversation song about an invitation to a dance. And, of course, on the lighter side is his sweet rendition of Jay Leonhart's "Beat My Dog," which evokes Audra at her sassiest but takes the song in a new, more romantic direction.
If the song list of No Reservations seems a little ballad-heavy, Cutrell more than makes up for the somewhat somber tone of the tunes with funny banter and stories that nicely connect the numbers into a cohesive whole. Whether talking about his college years in Ohio ("I'm big in Dayton!" he regularly boasts), about searching through libraries tighter than Fort Knox for rare sheet music (it was worth the effort), or simply joking around with audience members and music director Ray Fellman, he never lets the mood become too dark. Cutrell's joy and love for his art is infectious, and no matter how intense or heartbreaking the song may be, a well-placed smile can lift the mood instantly.
At last week's final performance (for the time being, one can only hope), cabaret and Broadway star Karen Mason stepped up to the mic to perform her friend and frequent collaborator Brian Lasser's "Better Days," which, like "Hello, Tom," Lasser composed for her. Her affectionate reminiscences of her friendship with Lasser gave the song a new, poignant meaning.
Before the obligatory encore, Cutrell wrapped up the many different emotional threads of the evening with a gentle and lovely rendition of Tim DiPasqua's "You," one of the more emotionally bare songs to hit the cabaret circuit in several years. As an encore, he, Fellman, and Karen Mason sang an unamplified, a capella Negro spiritual by Walter Hawkins, "I'm Goin' Up A Yonder," a suitably optimistic finale to the all-too-brief evening. With any luck, No Reservations will be back soon, and until then, drop by the Duplex on Friday nights after 11:00 to hear Brandon Cutrell and Kate Pazakis belt down all the stone walls on Christopher Street.