CABARET LIFE NYC: Two Charming Young Women Performers--Carly Ozard and Nikki MacCallum--Conquer the Challenge of the Personalized Tribute Show at The Duplex

CABARET LIFE NYC: Two Charming Young Women Performers--Carly Ozard and Nikki MacCallum--Conquer the Challenge of the Personalized Tribute Show at The Duplex

Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks

It may be just me, and the fact that I've seen more cabaret shows over the past three years than I can count, but it seems as if the use of autobiographical patter in solo presentations is off the charts. In fact, an esteemed reviewer from another cabaret-centric website recently opined about this issue and I found myself agreeing with much of his argument bemoaning the practice.

Sure, cabaret is an intimate art form and making a personal, even emotional, connection with an audience--whether through humor, pathos, or fascinating anecdotes--is a laudable goal and the best performers have the knack for pulling it off. But the "It's-all-about-me" syndrome in cabaret patter can be a double-edged sword. When done well, stories about one's life and how that information connects to the music can give a show a more compelling depth. When done poorly (which happens most often when a performer hasn't engaged a director to offer a more objective eye), such self-indulgence can sabotage a show that may otherwise be musically terrific. I've seen shows where I've come away wanting to know more about the performer and shows which were decidedly filled with TMI.

Autobiographical patter is most often used in tribute shows and with good reason. Most tribute shows--whether paying homage to a singer or a songwriter, a group or a genre--are staged by performers who possess a passion for the subject. They are basically fanatics squared. When last year I staged my own tribute show to the songbook of Don McLean, I couldn't imagine not talking about where I was in my life when I discovered his music and why I so appreciated his songs. But I avoided upstaging the tribute with my autobiography. Frankly, I'd rather listen to a performer's personal patter in a tribute show than hearing a droning chronological bio of the artist that sounds like Rand Paul ripping off Wikipedia for talking points.

The biggest challenge in personalizing a tribute show is when the set list is structured to tell a story about the performer's life. Those songs better be good, that life better be interesting, and that storytelling patter better be clever, humorous, and self-deprecating or an audience (let alone a reviewer) will tune you out quicker than a liberal accidentally hitting FOX News on the remote. I recently saw two different shows at The Duplex from enchanting young women performers--Carly Ozard and Nikki MacCallum--who deftly managed to weave their love of a singer (Bette Midler for Ozard) or a songbook (Kander & Ebb for MacCallum) into a tale of life journey and personal growth to produce charming and entertaining shows.

CABARET LIFE NYC: Two Charming Young Women Performers--Carly Ozard and Nikki MacCallum--Conquer the Challenge of the Personalized Tribute Show at The DuplexCarly Ozard, Midler On the Roof, The Duplex, May 25

Carly Ozard is a BBW (Big, Beautiful Woman) with a BBV (Big, Belting Voice) who hadn't quite hit the sweet spot for me in the two major shows she had staged in New York since transplanting from San Francisco a few years ago. Her Big Apple debut show in 2012, Shift Happens, revealed her substantial vocal chops but was an uneven exercise in navel gazing, which was followed by an absolutely karaoke-esque Freddie Mercury tribute show (at Don't Tell Mama and Iridium) that had me thinking this young woman's cabaret career was another one biting the dust before it really got started. But with her recent clever and engaging tribute to one of the great pop divas, Bette Midler, the third show turned out to be the charm. (See video, below.)

Ozard described her most recent three-show outing at The Duplex as, "One singer's journey of 'Divine' intervention" (a play on Midler's moniker, "The Divine Miss M"), and her show title wasn't merely a cute pun on the classic Broadway Musical in which Midler launched her career in the role of Tzeitel in 1966. As Ozard once again used her cabaret show as an act of catharsis--chronicling her trials, tribulations, addictions, and insecurities--it became clear that the talented singer has long been on a quest to try scratching out a pleasant, simple life without breaking her neck. As her show promotion revealed, "This tale narrates growing up through bullying [among other things] and finding self-acceptance through Bette Midler's music." This time, through a combination of self-deprecating humor, entertaining anecdotes, her strong mezzo-soprano voice, fine direction from Kristine Zbornik, stylish musical direction from pianist Steven Ray Watkins, and of course, the classic songs of The Divine One, Ozard made it all work. (Daniel Fabricatore on bass and Tim Lykins on drums rounded out Ozard's solid band.)

With Watkins on the piano playing the familiar violin strains of "Tradition" from Fiddler, Ozard offered a brief parody of Tevya's opening monologue, "Why do we keep doing live performing if it's so dangerous?" Well, in Ozard's case, it's not only because she clearly loves to perform, but also because she obviously needs the outlet to work through her personal stuff as if the stage is a couch and her audience a therapist as collective. In her first Midler-like move of the show, she wrapped herself in a feather boa and ironically delivered "Perfect Isn't Easy," the song Midler voiced as the poodle "Georgette," in the 1988 Disney film, Oliver & Company. It was a fun opener that allowed Ozard to show off her ability to sound like Ethel Merman-lite.

The rest of the 18-song set (including four medleys) chronicled Ozard's biography--from early childhood to the present--and the Midler song she either connected with or aptly represented that stage of her life. At age 8, she was teased about everything from her size to her love of musical theater songs and spent days alone in her room performing Midler hits like "Delta Dawn." Watkins and backup singers Rain Collazo and Karen Mack (who provided outstanding vocal support throughout the show) joined Ozard on a big gospel-style arrangement of the 1972 song that both Tanya Tucker and Helen Reddy had a hit with before Bette's became popular a year later.

At 13, Ozard "wanted to command the gym the way [Midler] commanded the stage." She and her backup singers certainly commanded The Duplex stage and captivated with some delightful harmonies on "I Put A Spell On You" (which Midler sang with Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy in the Disney film Hocus Pocus). On the up-tempo "Big Noise from Winnetka," Ozard was the big noise, showing off her major belt on one of Midler's popular songs from the 1980 concert film, Divine Madness. While Ozard's interpretations of Julie Gold's "From A Distance" and Randy Newman's "I Think It's Gonna Rain Today" (which Midler recorded in 1990 and 1988, respectively) were just average, in between she was "The Divine Miss O" on a terrific arrangement of an "I'm Beautiful"/ "Married Men" medley. By her early 20s, Ozard had already gotten involved in the LGBT scene in San Francisco, so this called for a funny Watkins' turn playing a drag queen on the phone telling Ozard she was being named the 2006 "Miss Golden Gate." It also called for Carly to channel Midler's days performing in New York's gay bathhouses with the 1979 song "Knight in Black Leather."

After relating about how she met her biological mother at age 18 and how she watched her grandmother deal with dementia, Ozard transitioned into Bette ballad mode with a mash up of "Hello In There" with "Wind Beneath My Wings" and she positively soared on the line, "I could fly higher than an eagle." The singer has never been shy talking about her battles with addiction and her forays into rehab, and her sweet duet with Watkins on Amanda McBroom's "The Rose," served as a metaphor for Ozard to let everyone know it's okay to be a late bloomer and that she is finally becoming "The Rose" in more ways than one. But vocally, Ozard was in full flower on her encore, the classic "Rose's Turn" from the musical, Gypsy. Sounding more Merman than Midler, Ozard wonderfully sang the great soliloquy sans microphone, finally exuding the movement and sensuality that should have been a given in a show featuring the songs of the saucy, extroverted Bette Midler.

If anything, Midler On The Roof proved that Carly Ozard has the potential the climb the New York cabaret ladder and keep her balance. But one hopes that after a string of introspective, confessional, self-revealing shows featuring deeply personal patter, she has finally gotten it all out of her system and can come up with interesting themes and material that isn't all about her. Then she might really become another Divine One.

CABARET LIFE NYC: Two Charming Young Women Performers--Carly Ozard and Nikki MacCallum--Conquer the Challenge of the Personalized Tribute Show at The DuplexNikki MacCallum, Familiar Things: Songs of Kander & Ebb, The Duplex, May 28

No doubt that through the last few decades many cabaret singers have paid tribute to the wonderfully tuneful songbook of John Kander and Fred Ebb, one of the greatest American Musical songwriting teams of all time. But I'm betting that young actress and cabaret performer Nikki MacCallum is the first to consider the music of Kander & Ebb as the soundtrack of her life and a theme for an autobiographical show.

MacCallum is an attractive, vivacious brunette with a delightfully self-deprecating sense of humor, a confident stage presence, and a solid, if not soaring, mezzo-soprano voice. Taking the stage for her show at The Duplex wearing a black, low-cut cocktail dress, she related that Kander & Ebb had been her inspiration since childhood and that "when life gets hard we cling to familiar things." She then opened with a few bars from that song from the 1984 musical, The Rink, and almost immediately segued into "Ring Them Bells," from Liza With a Z, a song she fell in love with at the tender age of 6. MacCallum's version of the comic song about traveling the world to find love, only to find it next door was fun, but she didn't quite bring all her expressive comic talents to bear on the number. Surprisingly more effective--not to mention gutsy--was her take on "Mr. Cellophane" from Chicago. The song had once been MacCallum's curious choice of her number for a middle school talent show, and for the Duplex audience she donned a black top hat and inserted the kind of buck teeth that made her look like Jerry Lewis' nerdy teacher character in The Nutty Professor. (See video, below).

MacCallum took more advantage of her comic timing and acting ability on both "How Lucky Can You Get?" and "Blind Date" from Funny Lady, the 1975 film sequel to the classic Funny Girl, and on "Sara Lee" (from the 1991 Off-Broadway revue, And The World Goes 'Round), a song reflecting her own obsession with delicious treats that included a rapid-fire recitation of cake varieties (nice staging and use of props here thanks to the guidance of her director, Kelvin Moon Loh). MacCallum's excellent Musical Director/Pianist Mark Hartman supplied supportive backing vocals on "One Good Break" from Flora the Red Menace (her acting career quest), and "Class" from Chicago (her best guy friend didn't think she had any). MacCallum is a solid alto who strains a bit when transitioning to a higher register (she could use a good vocal coach to smooth out the rough edges), an issue when she performed just an okay medley of "Where You Are" (from Kiss of the Spider Woman), "The Happy Time" (from the show of the same name), and "Isn't The Better" (from Funny Lady).

One of MacCallum's best sections in the show was her very heartfelt and sensitive interpretation of "Colored Lights" from The Rink, followed by her taking the piano for a sweet turn on "Go Back Home" from The Scottsboro Boys (dedicated to her piano teacher Mom). She brought her entertaining set home with an expression of the career goal she's had since childhood (to perhaps one day star in a revival of a Kander & Ebb musical?), a solidly arranged mash up of "First You Dream" from Steel Pier, with an understated version of "New York, New York."

Ironically, there was nothing in MacCallum's show from the iconic Kander & Ebb musical Cabaret, but this is one performer who doesn't reach for the obvious cliche. Besides, she didn't need to sing the title song from that classic show because MacCallum is an Elsie--she's a woman who is no blushing flower and who's full of life and laughter. And she'll obviously be joyfully singing the songs of Kander & Ebb from cradle to tomb.

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