CABARET LIFE NYC: Watching Some 'Angels' Take Wing and Other Observations From a Cabaret Summer

Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks

One of the biggest downers perpetrated by American culture is the characterization of Labor Day weekend as the "unofficial end of summer." But given what has passed for cabaret entertainment--at least the shows I was able to attend--since the "unofficial start of summer" on Memorial Day weekend, the end of summer can't come soon enough.

It's not that I didn't experience some fine shows since my last seasonal review compilation at the end of spring. As chronicled in past critiques, I was thoroughly enchanted by Liz Callaway and Ann Hampton Callaway's recent Sibling Revelry at 54 Below, two different Jane Monheit sets at Birdland and 54 Below, Natalie Douglas at Birdland, and especially Jim Brochu's Character Man at the Met Room and the Lauren Fox produced Woodstock tribute show at 54 Below. I also enjoyed LA's Joanne Tatham at the Metropolitan Room (and who is set for four shows at the Café Carlyle in early October), Boston's Lynda D'Amour at Don't Tell Mama, and young jazz heartthrob Devin Bing at the Met Room. It was also a treat revisiting the engaging and charming shows of lovely ladies of cabaret like Laurie Krauz (Tapestry Rewoven at the Met Room), Rosemary Loar (When Harry Met the Duke at the Met Room), Charlotte Patton (Looking for Love in the 21st Century at The Duplex), and Barbara Porteus (Up On The Roof at Don't Tell Mama).

Two shows that I hadn't yet reviewed but that were deliciously entertaining were New York cabaret veteran Ricky Ritzel (photo right) with his Sings Elaine Stritch at Don't Tell Mama (July 31), and Scranton, PA's Rich Jenkins with his band at the Met Room (August 29). Given Ritzel's on-stage flamboyance, passionate piano playing, and vocals that sound like he never met a cigarette he didn't like, it wasn't much of a stretch for him to do Stritch, and his endearing homage to the Broadway musical legend was filled with panache, humor and musicianship. Relatively unknown in New York cabaret, Jenkins' set was a pleasant surprise, even if it was more a lounge act than a cabaret show. Playing guitar and singing in a style that's a cross between Randy Newman and David Lee Roth (with some Ricky Ritzel thrown in), Jenkins fronts a solid five-piece band (especially Mark Woodyatt on violin and Kenneth McGraw on piano) that offers jazzy or bluesy versions of standards from "Ain't Misbehavin'" to "Night and Day" to "Fly Me To the Moon" (in addition to a couple of Jenkins' cool original songs). Jenkins and company is definitely a group to check out the next time they're in town.

While all of the above may sound like an embarrassment of riches, there were also more than a handful of plain embarrassments; sets that were so hopelessly mediocre they weren't even interestingly bad enough to review. Either the cabaret rooms are booking too many shows or I've become a cabaret shopaholic with no sales resistance. No doubt it's a combination of both so there obviously needs to be a better display of judgement on both ends of the equation.

My dismay over the hours lost watching average shows this summer was tempered a bit by the pride and joy I felt watching the June performances of three strikingly attractive and talented 30ish brunettes with powerhouse voices, who are among my "discoveries" that I cast (or, in one case, considered for the cast, but she was otherwise booked) for my mid-May variety show, Stephen's Angels at Iridium. Jackie Kristel and Karen Gross (who I met a few years ago through cabaret singing workshops produced by Director Collette Black's Manhattan Cabaret Arts), and Jodi Beck (who I first heard when she made it to the Final 10 out of 48 singers--and should have finished higher--at the 2012 Metrostar Talent Challenge) all staged entertaining shows as spring was turning to summer and it will be fascinating to see if my "Angels" eventually get their cabaret wings. (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)

Jodi Beck: Never Gonna Be Easy/CD Release Show, Laurie Beechman Theatre, June 8

There are three ways in which the production of a CD can be connected to a cabaret show. Performers can record a show and release a CD of the live performance. They can stage a show and then record the set in a studio for a future CD release. Or they can record a studio CD and then perform the songs live as part of a show. All three usually result in the increasingly ubiquitous "CD release show/party."

Jodi Beck's show at the Laurie Beechman was an example of the latter, and staged as a celebration of the release of her seven-song debut EP "Never Gonna Be Easy." Unless the performer has recorded a true thematic CD and can build a story around it for the live performance of an extended set, this type of CD release show comes across--as Beck's did--as more a concert than a cabaret show.

With her songwriting collaborator Doug Silver (he wrote music and contributed some lyrics on the EP's five original songs) on piano and guitar, and three additional band members (Ann Klein on lead guitar and mandolin, Jay Rooten on bass and Fred Kennedy on drums) and Shoshanna Richman providing background vocals, a buoyant Beck bounced to the stage rocking a red gown and a facial glow. A party atmosphere permeated a room filled with Beck's friends, family, and her singing and acting buddies. From her opening number, Aillene Bullocks' rocking blues "Baby What You Want Me To Do," I had rarely seen a cabaret performer having so much fun on stage. In fact, Beck seemed so excited you'd have thought she mainlined caffeine that afternoon.

It didn't negatively affect Beck's voice--powerful up and down her alto to mezzo range and strong throughout the show--that was diminished only by sometimes having to compete with the volume of her band and for which the Beechman tech crew didn't compensate. There were a couple of times during the set when I wanted to storm to the back of the room like an angry parent and yell, "Up the volume on her damn mic!" But I had to remember I was attending the show as a reviewer, even though my impartiality was somewhat compromised.

Of the 17 numbers in the set, three were Beck/Silver originals from the CD, including an early '80s pop-sounding "Worst Enemy," the disc's title track which is an up-tempo country riff that might be stronger in a slower tempo (backup vocals in the show didn't add much here), and the ballad "Victoria Peak," a biographical lyric about Beck's experiences in Hong Kong, during which the singer's power vocal builds with the telling of her story. On another original, Silver attached a nice melody to the Edna St. Vincent Millay poem, "The Dream."

The rest of Beck's set was a mixed bag of styles that ranged from cute to compelling in vocal effectiveness. While singing "Kiss" in that Prince falsetto leading to a song-ended screech was a bit off-putting, Dolly Parton's "Heartbreak Express" was a crowd-pleaser, her rendition of Bob Dylan's "Make You Feel My Love," was lovely and heartfelt, Florence and the Machine's "Shake It Out" was one of the best numbers in the set, and she brought her own style of pop/blues interpretation to the Etta James classic, "Damn Your Eyes," the number which had so impressed the Metrostar judges last year. Overall, Beck presented an entertaining mini-concert that displayed an engaging, down-to-earth on-stage personality mixed with her obvious vocal strength. Whether she can transition from this type of set to a full-blown, thematic cabaret show is the question and I'm anxious to learn the answer.

Jackie Kristel, A Girl You Should Know Better, Metropolitan Room, June 11

From the moment I first heard Jackie Kristel sing in the first of two cabaret workshops we were in together, I knew she had the potential to be a standout solo cabaret performer. She already had the great looks (as a plus-sized model) and the stage presence (as an extra in TV and films and as a former member of the burlesque troupe the Glamazons). Then last June, the Musical Theater major from Vassar (now a pre-school teacher) staged her debut show A Girl You Should Know at Don't Tell Mama and wowed her audiences and even reviewers who hadn't taken workshops with her. (Her director--and workshop producer--Collette Black won a BroadwayWorld.com Award for Kristel's show.) In my very positive review--if not a rave--for Cabaret Scenes Magazine, I wrote: "While Kristel's vocals could be even more powerful and smooth, she already has a strong and enchanting voice and she's adept at a variety of styles . . . If she were an athlete, a scout would say that she not only has numerous innate gifts, but that she has plenty of performing 'upside.' Jackie Kristel is not only a girl you should know, this is one cabaret babe to be reckoned with--now and in the future."

The future came a year later, when this past June she came to the Metropolitan Room, not with a totally new show but with a rare cabaret sequel called A Girl You Should Know Better, a set which included five songs from the first show. It was a curious choice, but not necessarily a bad one considering Kristel was still a relative unknown in the New York cabaret scene. The challenge for Kristel and Black was to make the new show different enough for Jackie's returning audience. The result, for this reviewer, was mixed.

Some of the numbers in the new set fit Kristel like a sexy Glamazon outfit, while others didn't wear quite as well. She entered wearing a shimmering black blouse over black stretch pants and, with roses on the piano, opened with the David Shire/Richard Maltby, Jr. song that became the show's title. Then after explaining a friend had suggested a new number for her new show, Kristel turned the Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin "Saga of Jenny" into a fab, fun, and sexy burlesque stripper story song. Among the other new numbers, Kristel was charming and hilarious on the Amanda McBroom lyric "Dieter's Prayer," sounding as if she was a smoother Janis Joplin doing "Mercedes Benz" (see video below), and on the Jeff Blumenkrantz song, "My Book" ("I've been trying to write a children's book for three years," she related), Kristel showed off her keen ability to deliver difficult songs built on multiple and rapid-fire lyrics.

Unfortunately, such a song that was a highlight in her first show, the Liza Minnelli staple "If You Hadn't But You Did," was cut in this one along with her adorable story about meeting Liza on a Manhattan street and getting an instant lesson from the legend in delivering the song. Also trimmed was "Joshua Noveck" (from the 1989 Off-Broadway review Showing Off), which was also a highlight of her first show (and which Kristel sang at the 2012 BroadwayWorld.com Cabaret Awards show last February). Two of the songs that replaced these fell completely flat, "Tamara, Queen of the Nile" (which included some awkward choreography) and "Coffee," a pedestrian blues number written by Kristel's Musical Director Tracy Stark, about the singer's addiction to "mother nature's artificial energy."

During a section early in the show about Kristel's dating experiences, "The Morning After (Leave)" was marvelously manic and well-acted, and Christine Lavin's "Regretting What I Said . . ." was fun and sung with a smile throughout, but Shire and Maltby's "One Special Man," should have been softer and less shrill. In her section on being a teacher, Sondheim's "Children Will Listen" was lovely but revealed a slightly nasal quality in Kristel's otherwise enjoyable alto to mezzo vocals, and how she needs to develop a fuller, rounder sound on ballads and dramatic passages in certain songs.

"It's been a great year; exciting and scary," Kristel admitted after doing a solid, if a bit too quick, rendition of Kander & Ebb's "Ring Them Bells" as her finale. "I hope I become a girl you won't forget." While Kristel's script definitely helped the audience get to know this delightful young woman and engaging entertainer better, performance-wise this show didn't raise the bar much. The potential, however, is clearly there for Jackie Kristel to become a cabaret performer that audiences will ultimately remember. Her next show--whatever that may be--might do the trick.

Karen Gross, Cabaret Mixtape, Metropolitan Room, June 29

Like Jackie Kristel, Ms. Gross is another talented singer and attractive 30ish brunette from Collette Black's Manhattan Cabaret Arts workshops that I felt could make a quick transition from one-shot variety show offerings to hitting the stage for a solo show in a New York club. Sure enough, just six months after we were all part of a 1960s-themed show at the Laurie Beechman, Gross, who was living in Philadelphia at the time, was making her New York debut in a show called Sex and the Single Singer. It was an inexperienced rookie's self-indulgent mélange of songs, comedy, and borderline performance art, but Gross' delightful personality, keen sense of humor, statuesque sex appeal (it was difficult to avert one's eyes from those Angelina Jolie-like lips), and engaging singing voice revealed her potential for rapid growth as a cabaret performer.

Her next effort last November, I'll Take Manhattan (directed by Lina Koutrakos with Rick Jensen as Musical Director) was a celebration of her move to the Big Apple. There was less comedy and performance art (other than an ill-advised "spoken word" riff by a friend serving as her "opening act"), but the show theme and the song choices came across as a meandering mess that seemed too contrived for a young woman as likeable, sincere, and genuine as Karen. It was clear Gross had to go back to square one and find songs she could be passionate about, and which fit her alto to mezzo vocal range.

She finally hit her mark this past April with a show at the Metropolitan Room called Cabaret Mixtape, a cute and nostalgic tribute to the pop songs of the early-1980s to mid-'90s that clearly had meaning for the singer. In fact, anyone in the audience who reached their teenage years as far back as the late '60s and compiled their favorite songs on cassette tapes--perhaps in thematic groupings from Motown to Disco--could relate to this show. Everything about Gross' new gig was tighter--her stage presence, the script, her vocals, the song choices--than in her previous efforts. But Gross obviously wasn't completely satisfied because she brought the show back to the Met Room again in late June and it was even better the second time.

For the newly tweaked version, Gross' look had changed from a woman-in-black "Addicted to Love" Robert Palmer robot girl to a hot young cougar in a tight animal print dress and jean jacket. Her brunette to now-golden locks were sensual and wild as she fittingly opened with the 1987 Guns N' Roses hit "Welcome to the Jungle." She followed with a sweet rendition of the 1983 Bryan Adams power ballad "Heaven," before explaining that the making of a mixtape was a "reminder of romances and the perfect hairdo" and that your mixtape was "a signature like a tattoo." Nice. Later, she was sexy and cheeky in a bit where she donned black-framed glasses and became radio psychiatrist "Dr. Connie Lingus," who tells a call-in quest (played by her Director Koutrakos) that "Lack of sex is a 'misdemeanor.' The more you miss, the meaner you get." The audience, er, lapped it up.

Obviously realizing that her first version of the show was a bit ballad heavy, this time Gross added "What a Feeling" from Flashdance, starting the song as an emotional ballad before building to the boogying rhythm. This wasn't a great number for a cabaret set, but she saved it with some fine faux disco dance moves. In the earlier version of Mixtape, Gross had performed KD Lang's "Constant Craving" and Carly Simon's "That's the Way I Always Heard It Should Be" as a medley. She delivered them individually for this one, but unfortunately didn't raise the bar. On "Craving," her over-quavering vibrato was still somewhat off-putting, while her voice wasn't quite strong or expressive enough to pull off the emotion of Simon's 1971 hit song. She did much better building the power on another emotional ballad, 'Til Tuesday's "Voices Carry." Madonna's "Express Yourself" is one of those up-tempo pop tunes that aren't well suited to a cabaret set, especially when it's a piano-only number. (In fact, at the risk of telling Karen how to plan her show budget, a set packed with so many pop songs would be much better served if some strings and percussion were added to the piano arrangements.) By contrast, Rick Jenson provided a fine arrangement for Britney Spears' 2008 hit "Circus," and Gross proved again she is generally stronger on power pop songs than on the ballads, although she ended a "Sex Medley" (including George Michael's "I Want Your Sex" and the Divynls' "I Touch Myself") with a languid and lovely "One On One," by Hall & Oates.

Another monster medley, called "Mixtape Mashup," proved to be one of the highlights of show. Gross willed her way through a dozen pop songs of the period and had the audience raucously clapping or singing along to snippets of songs such as Fiona Apple's "Shadowboxer," Sade's "Smooth Operator," Bananarama's "Venus," Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares 2 You," and Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time." (My only issue with this medley--and it's just a slight quibble--was its positioning towards the end in both shows, when it seemed better suited as an early-in-the-show setup for the overall theme.) After singing so many hits written by female pop composers, it seemed a natural transition for Gross to end on Alanis Morissette's "Hand In My Pocket" from the 1995 album Jagged Little Pill. Jensen produced a very fine arrangement and his piano sound was rich and layered on a song lyric that might have reflected where Karen Gross is at this point--perhaps signifying the beginning of a new life mixtape.

And what it all boils down to
Is that no one's really got it figured out just yet
'cause I've got one hand in my pocket
And the other one is playing the piano
And what it all comes down to my friends
Is that everything's just fine, fine, fine
'cause I've got one hand in my pocket
And the other one is hailing a taxicab

From the outset of her show, Gross' charm, youthful enthusiasm, and eagerness to please was infectious (which, by the way, could also be said about Beck and Kristel) and those qualities carried her and her audience through a solid show that, while slightly flawed, revealed that while Karen may have not quite figured it all out yet and has one hand in her pocket, the other one is reaching for a successful career as an entertainer. She may just soar like an angel and grab the cabaret brass ring yet.




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