Is it too soon to get nostalgic for 2012? In the beginning week of each new year, it seems worth reflecting on what the last one was like, to note things about the year as a big lump that we might not have noticed with each droplet of time. This is the first of a few looking-back columns. No, I'm not doing one of those "Best of the Year" reflections on shows that some other reviewers do.
I'm on the voting committee for the critics' awards: the Nightlife Awards (January 14 at The Town Hall on West 43 Street) and the Bistro Awards (March 4 at Gotham Comedy Club on West 23 Street), and I don't want to show my hand or do a column that feels like voting re-done and redundant. Instead I thought I'd write about some shows I saw that I have not written about it yet. My New Year's Resolution of 2012 was not to procrastinate about writing up shows, so you can see I was consistent in breaking that resolution all year. Just kidding. Sort of. Well, those of us who see multiple shows each week don't have (or make) the time to write about/review them all (I am a painfully slow writer and not a speedy typist either, neither of which helps when you tend to weigh every word and don't have the scale handy). But sometimes a show that went in one ear and out the other comes months later to the brain. It might be because the perspective of later shows brings it back, maybe appreciated more, maybe part of an intriguing or disheartening pattern not seen in full perspective until more shows came and went or come around again.
This first in a series of observations centers on something hardly new in cabaret—just more and more observed (TRIBUTE SHOWS), maybe because we've seen so many... or maybe because there don't seem to be many icons (singers, songwriters) left UN-saluted at this point... or maybe it's because someone ELSE is doing a tribute to somebody it seems just had a tribute. Or is it the sign of the tribute times that more and more in cautious economic times without lots of major newspaper or TV cabaret that a performer not a household name to non-followers will latch on to the known quantity? Broadway movers and shakers seem to favor the proven musical to revive or the familiar movie hit title to adapt. Likewise, it's logical that cabaret-goers might be more likely to take a chance if they come IN as fans of a superstar being saluted. The same trend is reflected in many recent CDs. But it can be dangerous waters when that big shadow is cast: When it comes to trying to recreate/get too close, saluters likely to suffer a "damned if you do/ damned if you don't" fate? Who wants to be a pale imitation or be criticized for straying too far from the model? I'll add that it is probably even more dangerous on disc!
There are different categories, depending on how much similarity is sought or inherent: from "very close approximation" to "close, but no cigar" to "This is ME. I just like the songs. I have no intention of copying." Before we proceed, let's take a moment for a prayer, thanking the universe that costumed karaoke and lip-synching, actually using the star's recordings or orchestral arrangement tracks, are not the only way to go. So then there are the shows where a look-alike in costume is hired to "play" the person as if the real deal. Some of those, of course, are men portraying female stars --- lovingly closely impersonating, devastatingly parading parody, campy or otherwise. And there is that in-between "affectionate" spoof. Don't Tell Mama continues its long-running shows every other Saturday night TOMMY FEMIA AS JUDY GARLAND AND RICK SKYE AS LIZA MINNELLI in their own mix of time-warped eras, with Ricky Ritzel as spiffy musical director. As the Cabaret Bible reminds us, "Seek sequins and ye shall find." I've enjoyed their work separately and together. There's comedy and surprising pathos, stings and arrows, and quips galore, along with the trademark songs and the material they did NOT sing, but sung as they might have. These, like "Garland" singing pop or torch songs written after she died in 1969, are the true litmus test of someone who knows the tricks and tics of the icon and can apply them not just to long-studied video clips and records, but to bring them to other material. This month's dates, both with 8:00 PM start times: January 12 and 26.
Earlier on the latter date, you can see another kind of tribute show in the same venue when TANYA MOBERLY brings back her BARBRA STREISAND salute. Talk about a mega-watt star being honored by a mega-powerhouse intense gal --- hope this won't lead to another overload for Con Edison. In sequence (not not in sequins), track by track, involved and invested Tanya gets on track with a Moberly-fied attack on every song on the recording titled Barb[a]ra Joan Streisand. It's the one contained three Carole King songs and other pop, with the dazzling medley of "One Less Bell to Answer" and "A House Is Not a Home" (both Bacharach/David). Then she does a montage of Streisand's first Greatest Hits album. (She eschewed the signature "People" the night I attended; maybe she thinks people who don't need "People" are the luckiest people in the ...Oh, never mind.) We'll see what happens with this ambitious project. Tanya brings a physical intensity and fierceness and is not known for being laidback and gentle. Sort of like a dinosaur isn't known for waltzing and picking daisies. But this leads some to the false impression that everything is full force belting. No! The eclectic BJS album has its ballads and introspective songs and Tanya does NOT blast them at the same volume or energy. She might LOOK intense and ready to push the lever to make the roller coaster go soaring and roaring. But there's variety. She is an unapologetic fan who says she loved and learned many established songs first through the Streisand versions. With Steven Ray Watkins at the piano, she does not re-invent them or do major changes with tempi or phrasing. She is respectfully following in the blueprint, admiringly and admirably, and the affection and absorption shows. But she is not slavishly copying so that it's dull. In addition to January 26, she's back on the very first night of February.
On January 6, BOYS' NIGHT OUT returns to the Metropolitan Room. Though a valentine to the RAT PACK and its antics, the singers ---DANNY BOLERO, TOM GAMBLIN, AND BERNARD DOTSON (directing debut of Joseph Macchia, with musical direction by Tracy Stark), they wisely make it clear that it's not at all about each guy taking on the role of Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin or Sammy Davis, Jr. They share the trademark songs. They talk about the superstars and their antics on and off stage, but in the third person with latter-day distance. It's a loose, unpretentious, happy time with a wink and a lot of splash (and not just in their drinks). Delightful performers on their own, the whole is more than sum of the party parts when these ready-to-roll folks team up. It's about an era and an attitude, taken brightly and brashly, with male bonding and good humor.
The Metropolitan Room was also home to TWO different tributes to the late, great singer-songwriter LAURA NYRO. The better fit was GRACE COSGROVE's and she brings it back there on January 10 and March 7, and the tasty, cool CD of the material is out in the world: To Laura with Love, with Don Rebic on piano and arrangements (and one chart, for "Blowin' Away," by guitarist Sean Harkness). Grace is a longtime Nyro fan and her own wistfulness and sensitivity and appreciation all suit her to the material. She can really get into the zone. It's a balance of loyal-to-the-originals treatments and some more adventurous outings, so it's not a museum piece or a radicalization. Happy medium achieved! I've been admiring this singer's simpatico connection to a unique songwriter/singer for a few years now and this has grown and blossomed. SHEPLEY METCALF did her own Nyro night which had a very different flavor, more diligently workmanlike, somewhat more jazzy and vigorous and less ethereal (which didn't help her or the material). While I enjoyed her determination and embrace of the work, it didn't work as well, and its meanderings could be odd. The effort seemed to show sometimes, rather than letting us relax and sail away on these beautiful clouds of dreamy music or rock with the rockers or cry with the weepers. Not to be dismissed by any means, as it had some fine turns and twists and experiments. I enjoyed much of it, but felt it needed more texture and a few more flavors. Actually, I'd like to see both shows think outside the box more of the better-known numbers, as they shared many titles. There's always something sorrowful about a show bringing back the work of someone so talented who died so young.
Some cabaret singers often adopt the material, might "SUGGEST" the icon because they come from the same mold (physically, vocally, philosophically) and sensibility , but the agenda is not to do a studied imitation. Instead, they get the ESSENCE of the star (who is probably a big favorite). Others use the musical material or personality as a reference point, but consciously avoid sounding or looking too similar. These "Reference Point Shows" aim to have the best of both worlds: tipping the hat to the idol, but determinedly putting one's own spin on the songs with different vocal qualities, attitudes, and very different arrangements/interpretations. One who was especially successful this year in this was STACY SULLIVAN in her show looking at ---no, EXPLORING ---the work of the great PEGGY LEE. She also has a CD out of the material. Anything but perfunctory, the well-researched sensational Sullivan survey is not an automatic pilot "greatest hits" instant replay. No way. Pathos-filled rather than just fact/hits-filled, there's enormous respect and perspective, enlightening thoughts about the burdened Lee's life. Her songwriting gets spotlight. Brilliant, savvy arranger/pianist Jon Weber is superb and adds layers of emotion and musicality most singers can only daydream of finding in a musical comrade. The show has morphed and gotten richer and deeper. On disc or in person, it's a good day when you can experience the show called It's a Good Day – And it's a good match; Stacy does recall aspects of Peggy: blonde, elegant, classy, a mix of fragility and strength, a hint of mystery and plenty of playfulness, a cool that many can only awkwardly approximate in a self-conscious way. She's back lovingly loving Lee at the Metropolitan Room on West 22 Street on January 28 and February 23, with a run in London in between. As they say in show biz, this show "has legs." Yeah, like a centipede!
TERESE GENECCO, who won this past year's MAC Award for the outstanding show of the year as well as Major Female Artist, revisited her FRANCES FAYE tribute, Drunk with Love, at 54 Below this year. This is one of the better examples of a singer who did her homework, adores her subject, and has or developed some of her traits. Both are knockouts, daring, funny, splashy, with lightning running through their bloodstreams, entertainers from tip-top to bottom. It was a thrill to see this show again. This one has the added bonus of drawing deserved attention to a now-gone entertainer who has NOT had the lasting fame that others with mainstream hit records or movie careers had. Sadly, iconoclastic icon Faye is not known by many younger music fans, but she was major and majorly fantastic. And groundbreaking. And rule-breaking. So, the terrific Terese is also doing a service to her idol AND their collective audiences. From the title song –a change-of-pace ballad--- to the almost non-stop showstopper toppers, her adrenalin-infused act fusing Faye with Genecco is a smasheroo. This 54 Below trip brought irrepressibly riotous Ricky Ritzel up as her sensationally entertaining guest. A well-informed fellow Faye fan with "fabulousness," he'd done his own Frances funhouse show some years ago. They played off each other wonderfully with that extra 100 gallons of high-octane premium super-fuel. It was a gas! Though the joyful Genecco has hardly abandoned Faye material completely in her long-long-long-running monthly shows at Iridium on Broadway and West 51 Street (back February 26), she has many cards to play. Along with other performers, you can find Terese trotting out her inner Elvis Presley in another nifty match-up at the Friars Club on January 8. And on January 29, she and her grand Little Big Band (manned with in-demand hot musicians) will land (with Lea DeLaria on hand as special guest) at the new Cutting Room (at 44 East 32 Street).
SUE MATSUKI & EDD CLARK did a series of shows called It's Us Again, also the name of a song and album from the career of married entertainers STEVE LAWRENCE & EYDIE GORME. Was that song there? Was it, like Moberly's, basically a replay of a certain album's tracks? No. It was a look at this couple: their work together and as solo artists. I love Steve & Eydie and early on started collected their many records and have been lucky enough to see them in person. Old-school nightclub entertainers, they sometimes get a bad rap/rep by those who dismiss them as being too glitzy or corny. Not to say that Vegas water has not been stirred in their drinks, but veterans Steve & Eydie are consummate entertainers with excellent voices, total pros, who can step away from showmanship and shtick and deliver deeply felt ballads or swing and belt with the best of 'em, with joy, abandon and excitement sparking. Miss Matsuki and Mr. Clark, who have performed together (and otherwise) for some time, missed the mark by a mile. They don't project the same energy, chemistry or personalities and whatever passing resemblance that was passing for acquaintanceship or studied effort to emulate or differentiate only did a disservice to the legacy of the stars who came to the public's attention in the 1950s and also married in that decade (Eydie has retired from performing, but not Steve). An effort to be cute and playful and "nightclubby" came off as the dreaded schlocky or just reduced calorie Lite snacks. Sue – a grand supporter of cabaret – has also taken it upon herself to be a reviewer and columnist dispersing advice as well as opinions. So, I was disappointed and surprised to see she hadn't always followed her own advice --- no song list was provided, no press kit, she'd taken on some things that didn't suit her or her partner and didn't dig into the material, indicating that they'd found their own way to do it, to deepen rather cheapen, to illuminate rather than allude to it. And some aspects expected by Steve & Eydie knowledgables were missing in non-action: where were the mega-medleys of pop songs or stuffed with the oeuvre of a songwriter they favored, the special material, the equivalent of marriage jokes, the female searing powerhouse torch songs performed as if really owned, and the true swing and effortless breezy quality of Steve? Sure, they did some of the trademarks and were pleasant, smiling hosts. And I am eager to point out that many in the audience were enthusiastically applauding and cheering. I noted a few others who, at least to me, looked dismayed. I found some pitch problems and a sense of skimming the surface rather than digging in. Unfailing genial, Edd Clark seemed to be having a fine time and dutifully eager to entertain and smile, but like a last-minute guest at his own party. Sue Matsuki was chatty and ingratiating, game even for a whirl at Gorme's Spanish repertoire. When she prefaced her biggest applause-getter, "If He Walked Into My Life," she talked about it being from the show Mame, coming at the point where the title character who raised an orphaned nephew (for the second half of his childhood) has "lost him" (he walks out on her when she doesn't approve of his fiancée, and she examines her past behavior and has regrets). Sue told the audience that one of the Lawrences' two sons had died unexpectedly and that she couldn't help but wonder how painful it had been for her to sing this. To me, this was wrongheaded and set up a playing of a sympathy card not appropriate. First of all, it's not death in the musical comedy's situation for this (the nephew returns and they mend fences soon enough). Although Eydie continued to perform this number throughout her career, she first recorded it in 1966, when it was a new song. She had whatever associations she had with it for twenty years before he son passed away at age 23 in 1986. Part of what made the song a hit for her was not its original context at all, but rather its more generalized interpretation, which many listeners who weren't aware of the context/source thought was about a failed romance between two adults. Its composer-lyricist Jerry Herman enthused in an Eydie Gorme album's liner notes, that "I fell out of my seat," when he first heard it because the singer had taken a song "all about a little boy and, and turned it into a classic torch song."
So let's see who gets the tribute treatment in this newly-born year of 2013. It's usually a safe bet that the one-hundredth anniversary of a performer's birth will inspire someone: there's Tony Martin (who died last year at 99!), Danny Kaye, Frankie Laine, Herb Jeffries, Frances Langford, Ella Logan, Roberta Sherwood, Ginny Simms, Helen Ward, Dan Dailey, Judy Canova, Rose "Chee Chee" Murphy, and Smilin' Jack Smith. And also someone we will forever think of as "16 Going on 17" would have been 100 this year, but died at 97. That was Agathe of the singing von Trapp family, whose name was changed to Leisl for the Broadway musical and film about the family, The Sound of Music. Any takers?
......... And speaking of The Sound of Music, and the sound of music, which is what it's all about anyway....
Certainly a major 1913 baby was Mary Martin. One nimble cabaret lady got a grand headstart on her centennial in 1912 and I trust she's coming around again. Graceful, blithe and vivacious like Mary Martin herself, Lynne Halliday brings a warm, informed, sweet and smart survey of the star's career. It's a marvelous match. Singing with sunny spirits without overdosing on sugar, the loving and quick-moving survey is directed with flair by Stephen Cole and received with appreciation by a smiling crowd. Mary Martin NEEDS more attention, and gets it sweetly here, hitting all the high points like the shows South Pacific, The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, One Touch of Venus without leaving out those just as key historically or that have interesting anecdotes attached. Of course, lovely-voiced Lynne gives a big nod to the song that put Martin on the map: Cole Porter's "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" and includes the special lyrics Jerry Herman wrote for a star-studded tribute to her (handled by Carol Channing): "She played a nurse, she played a nun, she played a boy who's a fairy" (rhyming that with "Our hearts belong to Mary"). Long before the show ended, our hearts belonged to Lynne, too. The act moved along at a quick clip, packed with info and classic songs and those deserving more frequent airings.