Review: Rian Keating is a Masterful Storyteller in WOMANSONGS at Don't Tell Mama

Rian Keating will return to DTM for one more performance on March 17th

By: Mar. 09, 2024
Review: Rian Keating is a Masterful Storyteller in WOMANSONGS at Don't Tell Mama
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Rian Keating is not your average cabaret artist. Although his shows do contain the normal cabaret elements: an eclectic blend of songs, personal banter, and shows that revolve around a theme. What Keating brings that separates him from the herd is an absolute treasure trove of stories from his life that are not just witty or amusing. His stories are profound and cover the entire panoply of human experience. If Flannery O’Connor sang that would be Rian Keating. He is one of the best storytellers around and sitting down to listen to an hour of his tales is always the best way to spend an afternoon.

I had that honor last week when I went to Don’t Tell Mama to see his show Womansongs. The title made me a little nervous thinking it might be an hour of mansplaining on the feminine condition. I am happy to report that this gem of a show is not that. Keating tells very personal stories peppered with songs about the women in his life and how they have made him the man he is. The stories are very careful observations of what it means to be kind, strong, nurturing, independent, and free. It is a feminist show from a source you wouldn’t immediately expect. He tells stories about teachers, mentors, and family members that are vivid and empowering. We should all be so lucky to have such women in our lives.

Review: Rian Keating is a Masterful Storyteller in WOMANSONGS at Don't Tell Mama
Photo by Conor Weiss

His show started at the very beginning with a song about the first woman, Eve, in Thomas Moore’s song “Woman Undone.” He followed with a very charming story about the first important woman in his life. His mother you say? No, the Bird Lady from Disney’s Mary Poppins. He describes his wonderment at seeing this unassuming woman when he was a little boy and being overwhelmed with how she took care of creatures who could give her nothing in return in “Feed the Birds.” He then did turn to his mother and how she would also quiet the room when her favorite song “Jean” came on the radio.

He devoted the next few numbers to a series of elementary school teachers who molded his character in gentle ways. He talked about a teacher who like Jean Brodie lived for and through her students in the song “Thieving Boy.” It is a mesmerizing song by John Dankworth and Cleo Laine. He told a wry story about a teacher who assigned a book report on a book of the student’s choice. Young Rian chose a book entitled “Killer Women” that was about women who had been driven to murder. It stressed the importance of cause and effect, crime and punishment. The story was punctuated with two songs that illustrate those qualities, Amanda McBroom’s “Crimes of the Heart” and Cole Porter's “Miss Otis Regrets.”

Review: Rian Keating is a Masterful Storyteller in WOMANSONGS at Don't Tell Mama
Photo by Conor Weiss

He next launched into an extended sequence about his grandmother. This extraordinary woman lived the life she was expected to live while finding small ways to dispense wisdom to her family about the things she learned along the way. He described her in James Taylor’s song “Millworker," about a working woman whose employer possesses every aspect of her body except her mind. He told a story about being given a Christian pamphlet about morality and somehow figuring out mathematically that his grandmother had not been married when her child was conceived. It was the first time he had thought of her as a flesh and blood woman who had to make choices. “The Mother” a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks served as an exclamation point on this heartwarming tale.

He went on to tell the story of the best gift he ever received, a hand-knitted sweater from his grandmother that she labored on for months. The climax of the story came when Keating pulled out that sweater and wore it for the rest of the evening. In a trio of songs, Amanda McBroom’s “Baby in a Box,” Harry Belafonte and Malvina Reynolds’ “Turn Around” and Harry Chapin’s Tangled Up Puppet, he examined abortion from both sides with great compassion and understanding.

Review: Rian Keating is a Masterful Storyteller in WOMANSONGS at Don't Tell Mama
Photo by Conor Weiss

The proceeds from Rian Keating’s show were donated to The Golden Door Scholarship Fund. Mr Keating, who is also a teacher, created the fund because many of his students are undocumented immigrants who do not have access to financial aid to go to college. Over the years his fund has helped many of these students to further their education and has opened doors to them that otherwise would have remained shut. The end of the concert was dedicated to them. “My Sister and I” is a song about such a pair of undocumented immigrants. He ended with a very moving recitation of Emma Lazarus’ famous poem set to Irving Berlin’s music, “Give Me Your Tired.”

Mr Keating was wonderfully supported by Darrell Curry on the keys. Keating has been very open about being hard of hearing, a particular challenge to a cabaret singer. Curry was a very sensitive accompanist. It was fascinating to see Mr Keating put his hand on the piano several times to be sure of certain frequencies he cannot hear through his hearing aids. Such challenges would be frustrating to many performers. But as I said, Rian Keating is no ordinary cabaret artist. I always look forward to his next set of marvelous stories.

Review: Rian Keating is a Masterful Storyteller in WOMANSONGS at Don't Tell Mama
Photo by Conor Weiss

Rian Keating’s Womansongs returns to Don’t Tell Mama for an encore performance at 3:30 pm on March 17th. For tickets and information go to donttellmamanyc.com. For more on Rian Keating follow him @rian.keating.3 on Instagram.

[Header photo credit: Conor Weiss]



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