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Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks

Back on April 1, when I posted my third compilation of delayed cabaret reviews from shows staged during the winter, I promised Number 4 would come with arrival of summer. Okay, so I missed my self-imposed deadline. Sue me. Hey, I was doing my own show this spring and it's not like I completely fell down on the job. Of the dozens of shows I attended between the start of the baseball season and the 4th of July weekend, many have been critiqued on this site, a few were shunned completely (for any number of reasons) and a few--like the shows featured below--merited chronicling but couldn't get the next-day-or-two-after-show review treatment. So here's yet another catch-up column with critiques of a half dozen spring shows. No doubt I'll see you again in September with Number 5. But before then, keep an eye out for my Mid-Year Cabaret Report, highlighted by a "Baker's Dozen of the Best Cabaret Shows" for the first half of 2013.

CABARET-LIFE-NYC-Catch-Up-Reviews-From-a-Cabaret-Spring-BATT-DEROW-FORREST-McNEIL-BARZEE-HENNESSEY-20010101Bryan Batt, Batt On a Hot Tin Roof, 54 Below, June 16

As "Salvatore Romano" on the Award-winning TV Series Mad Men, Bryan Batt played a high-powered 1960s advertising agency art director who kept his homosexuality in the closet. After catching his new show Batt On a Hot Tin Roof at 54 Below, this reviewer can safely say Batt is definitely out of the closet as a terrific cabaret performer, as he "batted" his entire set out of the nightclub and soaring onto 54th Street.

Seeing Batt's show was a wonderful culmination to Father's Day, especially since I was accompanied by my daughter, who attends Tulane University, where Batt graduated in 1985. He may have made his name as a Broadway Musical Theater star, but Batt is still emotionally and physically connected to his hometown of New Orleans. He became drawn to cabaret when he was asked to put together his first one-man show as a benefit after 2005's Hurricane Katrina ravaged his home city. In this new show, he immediately expressed his connection to "Nawlins" through his engaging opening numbers, Kander and Ebb's "Go Back Home," from The Scottsboro Boys, followed by applying his smooth Broadway baritone to Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans." He would pay homage to his favorite cities again later in the show with a languid and loungy take on "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" and showing off his tenor range on Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind."

Batt is personable, relaxed, charming, and cheekily funny on stage and in this show--with only Michael Lavine supplying accompaniment on piano--he proved marvelously adept at singing a variety of song styles in a setting more intimate than a Broadway theater. After informing the audience that he's learned that the third song in a cabaret set is supposed to be a love song, he launched into the ballad "Sensitive Song" (Laurence O'Keefe and Neil Benjamin), which eventually transitions into a hoot about a guy dating "a skanky whore." But then came the truly sensitive number, as Batt cooed his way through Cole Porter's classic "Night and Day."

The strongest part of the set, especially on a day celebrating dads, was the middle section of songs that included patter about his parents (Batt identified with his "frilly" Southern belle mother and not his manly "Man Men"-type father. He even wrote about his Steel Magnolia/Auntie Mame of a mom in a 2010 memoir, "She Ain't Heavy, She's My Mother."). After a sweet version of Tony Hatch's 1964 pop hit for Petula Clark, "Downtown," Batt delivered one of the best Burt Bacharach medleys I've heard from a cabaret singer when he combined "Wives and Lovers" with an especially tender, vulnerable rendition of "This Guy's In Love With You." He then employed a sensitive vibrato on Maury Yeston's "Unusual Way" from the musical Nine, and brought tears to the eyes on Craig Carnelia's father-and-son-bonding-through-baseball epic, "What You'd Call a Dream." (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)

After all that lovely schmaltz, Batt reminisced about how his first Broadway show--with his mom in tow--came in 1979 for comic genius Gilda Radner at the Winter Garden, and how he worried about his mom's reaction to Radner's adorably profane "Let's Talk Dirty To The Animals" (of course, she loved it). What else could follow but Brian Lasser and Gary Gardner's poignant and funny, "I'm Becoming My Mother"? Batt then segued into Peter Mills' hilariously clever, gay-boy-coming-out-to-dad number, "The Caveman Song" (also called "Way Ahead of My Time"), which I've heard numerous times in cabaret shows and during open mics and Batt's rendition was one of the best. And while I wish every homosexual cabaret performer didn't feel the need to sing the new gay anthem, Jerry Herman's "I Am What I Am" from Les Cage aux Folles, Batt was so endearing on the song it was a fitting finale to a positively lovely show and a perfect Father's Day.

Bryan Batt will be bringing Batt On a Hot Tin Roof to London's Crazy Coqs Cabaret Room, located within the Brasserie Zedel Restaurant Complex at Piccadilly Circus, August 6th thru 10th. Then he'll be at Society Cabaret at The Starlight Room in The Sir Francis Drake Hotel, San Francisco, for four shows from August 15th thru 17th.

CABARET-LIFE-NYC-Catch-Up-Reviews-From-a-Cabaret-Spring-BATT-DEROW-FORREST-McNEIL-BARZEE-HENNESSEY-20010101Dawn Derow and Sean Harkness, Music 4 Two, The Cutting Room, May 23

On the surface, Dawn Derow would seem to have much going for her as a cabaret performer--youth, blonde-haired beauty, sex appeal, confidence, energy, and a strong alto to mezzo soprano vocal range. Unfortunately, the key word in the previous sentence is surface. When Derow is on stage (and sometimes when she's off stage), she exudes a palpable and off-putting aura of preening and pretension, on top of the usual dose of cabaret performer self-indulgence, that makes her an entertainer it isn't easy to warm up to.

Originally from Cape Cod, MA, Derow has been doing cabaret in New York since 2008 and her most recent act has been a show called Music 4 Two, the "Two" in this case partly a reference to her collaborator, the accomplished guitarist Sean Harkness. [Full disclosure alert: Harkness was the Musical Director for my own recent cabaret show.] Derow and Harkness first staged the show at Don't Tell Mama in Fall 2011, and Derow obviously felt it was transcendent enough to have it recorded "Live" at Metropolitan Room in January 2012. A year later came the "CD Release Show" at the Met Room, which was my first exposure to the show. As the set moved along, it was clear that it was more of a coffee house-style pop/folk concert than thematic cabaret. It was also much more of a showcase for Derow than it was a duo deal. She may have had the good sense to hire Harkness to co-write arrangements, sing some backup vocals, and give great guitar, but she (and/or her director Lina Koutrakos) should have made sure Harkness' contribution in the show matched up to his billing. Frankly, if it wasn't for Harkness' compelling guitar arrangements and cool occasional riffs, some of Derow's vocal interpretations (as on the 1973 Dobie Gray hit, "Drift Away"), would have come across as only slightly better than hearing a good singer in a karaoke bar.

While there were a few solid numbers in that 16-song Met Room set, there was a sameness about the style and tone of the songs--including three derivative folky/pop tunes that Derow wrote herself--that made even the highlights blend together and lose impact. When I heard that the duo would be trying again at The Cutting Room, I wanted to give the show another shot, thinking that perhaps the more concert hall-like venue would provide a better setting for Derow's performance. The new show was indeed tighter, but still didn't have a discernible theme, the between-song patter came across as filler, and Derow didn't seem any more emotionally connected to the songs or to her audience than she had at the Met Room.

Looking casually sexy in an orange blouse, skin tight black jeans and sparkly silver heels, The Cutting Room show got off to a solid start with an unplugged version of Michael Jackson's "PYT," followed by a clever mashup of Lennon & McCartney's "Two of Us" with "Just The Two of Us," a smooth, sexy, and stripped down rendition of "Ain't Misbehavin'," and Derow's strong vocal-- along with Harkness using his guitar as a percussion instrument--on Bob Marley's "Waiting in Vain." But the momentum quickly faded on two of Derow's sweet, but nondescript mid-tempo pop songs, where the emotion didn't seem genuine, as if she was playing the role of pop singer/songwriter star. Then on the Aretha Franklin classic, "Do Right Woman, Do Right Man," Derow strained to achieve a soulful sassiness, but wasn't sexy or subtle and tried to overpower the song.

The rest of the set was a mixed bag. Derow sang with a Karen Carpenter-quality to her voice on "This Masquerade," but Harkness' jazzy guitar arrangement was more interesting than the vocal. She produced a solid rock 'n' roll belt on Alanis Morisette's "Forgiven," but the setup included an unfunny, borderline sacrilegious line about calling her Priest in Cape Cod her "Sugar Daddy" because he'd give her money to sing. Derow redeemed herself on "Un Amico Come Lei," an Italian love ballad that she co-wrote with Harkness, and which was perhaps the truest emotional moment in the entire set. Harkness provided the highlights on the finale (a bluesy version of "Some Kind of Wonderful") and the encore (singer Kathleen France and Koutrakos providing backup vocals for Derow on Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain") with his usual awesome guitar riffing.

Dawn Derow is a talented musician who obviously loves to perform, but she is also an overreacher who hasn't quite figured out if she's a folk singer or a rocker chick, and who may be miscasting herself as a cabaret performer. At this stage of her game and her life she seems better suited to fronting a rock band so she can belt, sing the occasional pop ballad, and drive some teenage boys crazy. Perhaps a bit more self-awareness on how she comes across on stage, more soul-searching on how to best deliver songs through a compelling story, and less attention paid to self-promotion, would go a long way towards transforming Derow into the kind of performer that cabaret audiences will really connect with.

CABARET-LIFE-NYC-Catch-Up-Reviews-From-a-Cabaret-Spring-BATT-DEROW-FORREST-McNEIL-BARZEE-HENNESSEY-20010101Lynly Forrest, Twentieth Century Fox, The Duplex, May 11

I don't know if there's a cabaret equivalent to baseball's sophomore jinx--i.e., a young performer offering just an average second show after a solid debut--but if there is then it unfortunately hit lovely Lynly Forrest. The adorable brunette, who came to New York by way of Texas, earned a 2012 MAC Award "Best Debut" nomination for her charming and personal 2011 show Paid in Full at Don't Tell Mama, which she called "songs and stories about our travels on the toll roads of life." But her newest show, Twentieth Century Fox (a three-show run at The Duplex) was a meandering misadventure that never got through the cabaret toll booth.

You'd think that based on the show's title and the movie glamour puss promotion photo that displays Forrest as a 21st-Century foxe, the theme would feature iconic film music, but the conceit was much more high-brow. In this show, Forrest, her director Lennie Watts, and Musical Director Steven Ray Watkins (who also served as the musical brain trust on her debut) took the audience time-traveling through women's roles before the 2000-sies. Things got off to a promising start as Forrest entered looking Natalie Wood-striking in a sexy short black dress with heels showing off a sleek pair of legs, and surprisingly opened with the very cool "20th Century Fox Mambo," the Marc Shaiman song featured in the faux Marilyn Monroe musical from NBC's fascinating TV flop Smash.

Forrest then introduced the show's thematic through line, which was reeling off random facts about women in history--including Monica Lewinsky and Anna Nicole Smith--and quotes from some famous feminists such as Gloria Steinem, a device which quickly seemed forced and repetitive. The chronology began in the 1920s with Forrest cute and coquettish on the Vincent Youmans/Irving Caesar song "Tea for Two" from No, No Nanette. She then donned a string of peals and straddled a chair for a draggy arrangement of the bluesy "Why Don't You Do Right," a number which went flat in more ways than one. On another clunky arrangement, this time of Kander & Ebb's "All That Jazz," Forrest delivered the song like a chick who is tipsy at a company party and gets a bit out of control with off-key singing and dorky dance moves.

In the woman as passive-and-cheated-upon-homemaker medley linking Frank Loesser's "Happy To Keep His Dinner Warm" with "Guess Who I Saw Today" (Murray Grand/Elise Boyd), Forrest really didn't capture the humor or nuance of the lyrics. By the time she finally got to songs that suited her country charm, a fun take on Comden & Green's "I Can Cook Too," and Loretta Lynn's "The Pill," it seemed as though Forrest wasn't as emotionally invested in this set as she was in her last show. Even her rendition of Carly Simon's "That's The Way I Always Heard It Should Be," which soared in Paid In Full as a stirring torch song, dragged in this one.

By the time Forrest made a bit of a comeback on her finale with the gospel flavor of Amy Sky's musical version of the Maya Angelou poem "Phenomenal Woman," and with her encore, which was a lovely ballad arrangement of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Cockeyed Optimist," it was too little too late to salvage a theme that came across as contrived and cliche, and where the songs seemed selected to serve the show idea and not the other way around. Lynly Forrest is a delightful, beautiful woman with a lovely voice and here's hoping her "sophomore jinx" is a one-show phenomenon.

CABARET-LIFE-NYC-Catch-Up-Reviews-From-a-Cabaret-Spring-BATT-DEROW-FORREST-McNEIL-BARZEE-HENNESSEY-20010101Dennis McNeil, Me and My Big Mouth, Metropolitan Room, May 9

Dennis McNeil is a Los Angeles-based former opera singer turned cabaret performer, who has sung in front of five U.S Presidents, been accompanied on piano by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, sung duets with Steve Miller and Lionel Richie, and graced the stage with the Grateful Dead in front of 14,000 "Deadheads." I begin this review with these facts because it's in keeping with perhaps the only running theme of McNeil's recent New York cabaret debut at the Metropolitan Room, a show that was so relentless in its name-dropping it was a wonder he didn't throw his back out from constantly bending over to pick them up.

During the latter part of his show--which cried out for a good director--the jovial Irishman, who seems like a fun and friendly guy, informed his audience that his "big fat mouth gets me into trouble, and a wink and a smile gets me out of trouble." Unfortunately, McNeil would need to wink for days and smile until he got lockjaw to make up for the trouble with this show. It might have flown in LA, where he has managed to win two Cabaret Awards as "Best Male Vocalist," but it just wasn't strong enough for New York, especially since he didn't present a multi-show run that might have enabled him to smooth out the flaws.

With his Musical Director James Followell at piano, McNeil opened displaying a strong baritone on an uptempo version of "This is The Moment" from the musical Jekyll and Hyde, but had difficulty sustaining the big notes at the end of phrases. On a poor arrangement of a swinging version of Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind," he went flat right off the bat and had to change keys after the first verse. Harry Connick Jr's "A Wink and a Smile" from the film Sleepless in Seattle introduced the Met Room audience to a bit of McNeil's personality within a show theme that was pretty thin. Donning a fedora a la Sinatra for a Sammy Cahn medley, he followed "Come Fly With Me" and "It's Magic" with long stories about working with the legendary lyricist at the Los Angeles Olympics before finally getting to the rest of the medley with "Teach Me Tonight."

Before the bossa nova of "Besume Mucho" came another long tale about how McNeil once worked with Argentine composer Lalo Schifrin, who wrote the theme for the TV classic Mission: Impossible. As for the song, when McNeil needed to belt it just wasn't there. After another awkward arrangement on Van Morrison's "Moondance," McNeil finally found a comfort level on two Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs, "Alfie" and "A House Is Not a Home." Then he was cute and smooth on a "La Donna e Mobile/That's Amore" connection, and was solid on Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Love Changes Everything" from Aspects of Love. But it wasn't until his encore with Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," that McNeil finally put it all together--his best combination of vocal range, interpretation, and emotion of any song in the show--and exhibited to his New York audience that he could be the complete cabaret package. Perhaps for his next visit there will be less big mouth, fewer winks and smiles, and more songs that offer a truer glimpse into his talent and into himself.

CABARET-LIFE-NYC-Catch-Up-Reviews-From-a-Cabaret-Spring-BATT-DEROW-FORREST-McNEIL-BARZEE-HENNESSEY-20010101Anastasia Barzee, Barzee Sings Bacharach, Metropolitan Room, April 19

The ninth number of Anatasia Barzee's 10-song tribute to the tunes of Burt Bacharach was "Be Aware," which could have been close to the operative phrase for this show, as in, "Be Self-Aware." Just because you happen to be friends with a famous composer doesn't necessarily mean his songs are the best fit for your voice and performing persona. Such was the overriding impression I had of a show that started promisingly, but gradually became hopelessly bland and more than a tad self-indulgent.

Barzee is an attractive, sinewy blonde with a confident stage presence and experience as a Broadway actor (she has appeared in Miss Saigon, Jekyll & Hyde, and Urinetown), Off-Broadway, films and TV. Given that background, you would think she'd know a thing or two about the need for a writer and director, which this show clearly could have used for its four-show run at the Metropolitan Room in mid-April. Her theme for this Bacharach songbook was about how people "explore the many ways we love; who we love, how we love, and why in the world do we keep doing it over and over again." But it was difficult to discern that story line (and her supposed acting chops) from a script that varied from awkward song setups to personal anecdotes and acknowledgements of audience members that frequently fell flat. As for the music, the best that can be said is that while Barzee definitely had some solid moments early on, the set was mercifully short. By the time she got to her encore, the Dionne Warwick hit "There's Always Something There to Remind Me" (covered in the 1980s by the British New Wave Band, Naked Eyes), I'd already lost interest.

Barzee entered the room holding a flute and upon taking the stage played the first few bars of "Close to You," before singing most of the song with an uptempo jazzy arrangement performed by the Kevin Hays Trio with Teddy Kumpel on guitar (the band chimed in at the end with some Carpenters-like falsettos). Barzee displayed a sweet alto to mezzo soprano on the number, but as was evident on must of her songs, she pushes and pauses often to hit those upper register notes. She followed with a warm, languid rendition of "Alfie," which was actually one of the better versions of that song I've heard in cabaret. When Barzee then produced a solid vocal (with a cool pop arrangement and a nice Kumpel guitar break) on "Anyone Who Had a Heart," it seemed this show was headed in the right direction.

But the ballad "This House Is Empty," was devoid of much feeling, was overlong and boring, and might have been more effective if delivered as a medley with Bacharach and Hal David's "A House Is Not a Home." Hays and Barzee could have come up with a much more clever and sexier arrangement of "What's New Pussycat," and after a bit of a comeback with an emotional rendition of the piano-only ballad "Whoever You Are I Love You" (from the show Promises, Promises), her rendition of the new Bacharach song, "Ready to Be Done With You" (written with Spring Awakening lyricist Steven Sater) was pretty forgettable and the song derivative of old Bacharach/David tunes. I was kind of ready to be done with this show when I heard something the world really didn't need, which was delivering "What the World Needs Now" with a banjo in the arrangement.

Barzee has enough going for her--the look, the voice, the personality, and the presence--that I'd be curious to see her again doing material that played more to her vocal strengths and had a more compelling theme. This one wasn't it.

CABARET LIFE NYC: Catch-Up Reviews From a Cabaret Spring - BATT, DEROW, FORREST, McNEIL, BARZEE, HENNESSEYNina Hennessey, With A Song, Metropolitan Room, April 16

As she prepared to deliver the fifth song of her set during her show With A Song, Nina Hennessey offered this set up: "At the urging of my husband [the drummer and percussionist Ray Marchica] and Marilyn Maye [with whom she worked with in the legend's Master Classes], I dropped the keys to some of these songs and here we are." Hennessey then cooed "A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square" as if she was a nightingale singing in the Metropolitan Room. But as she continued with her 16-song set, it became clear that this lovely, luminous blonde with a Broadway, Off-Broadway, National Tour, and TV pedigree was performing more of a 54 Below-style concert than a true story-based cabaret show. Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that, but in this case it prevented this wonderful singer's show from achieving a higher, more compelling level.

Entering wearing a black evening dress with a tasteful wrap around her shoulders, Hennessey opened with Peggy Lee and Dave Barbour's "It's a Good Day," with just Marchica on percussion. Then Musical Director/Pianist Don Rebic and Bassist Jeff Ganz joined in the fun on a jazzy, finger-snapping "Sometimes I'm Happy" (Vincent Youmans and Irving Caesar), from the 1927 musical Hit the Deck. Rebic provided lovely arrangements for Hennessey (as he did for most of the songs in the show) on two Rodgers & Hart tunes, "Lover" (from the 1938 film Love Me Tonight), and "Falling In Love With Love" (from the 1938 Broadway show The Boys From Syracuse), and then a cool, jazzy arrangement on "It Ain't Nessessarily So" from Porgy & Bess. Hennessey then went from her deeper register to her head voice on the rangy, jazzy, and emotional ballad "Willow Weep for Me." So far, so good.

A director can often be the most overrated element in constructing a cabaret show, but it's also sometimes easy to spot the shows that really could have used that valuable third eye. Hennessey's was one of them. She didn't quite maintain the momentum in the second half of the show, which suffered from awkward patter breaks (like a shout out to audience members who weren't there), her lack of working the stage (her positioning was pretty static the entire show), and the use of a music stand. A director not only might have cleared up these flaws but could have gotten her to put more bite and attitude into her too sweet delivery of "Girl Talk" from the 1965 film Harlow, or had her cut the song "New Valley," which Hennessey used to show off her jazzy scatting but delivered it as if she were doing vocal exercises. And a good director might have convinced her that if you're going to turn the operatic aria "Tre Giorni Son Che Nina" into a bossa nova, taking the mic out of the stand and displaying more on-stage sensuality might make the number more enchanting.

Hennessey got her groove back on something very comfortable for her. Having sung on tour for years with the late Marvin Hamlisch, she was solid on the piano-only ballad "Looking Through the Eyes of Love," which Hamlisch wrote with Carole Bayer Sager for the 1973 film Ice Castles. And her finale/encore combination of "Without A Song," which transitioned from a straight ballad to a jazzy, uptempo number, followed by a cool ballad version of the classic "I'll Be Seeing You," brought the concert home on a high note. Nina Hennessey is a beautiful, classy, and accomplished songstress. Now she just needs a story and more style to go with all that talent. -END-

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