What Makes Me Tick: Marc Kudisch Plays—Marc Kudisch!


Marc Kudisch will appear in Arlington, Virginia’s Signature Theatre’s Sizzlin’ Summer Cabaret on August 1 and 2.

Something exceedingly rare happened at Feinstein’s Sunday night. Marc Kudisch, known for his larger than life musical theater characterizations, achieved a level of intimacy with a cabaret audience hardly ever witnessed (or experienced) by this reviewer. Without tuning down an impressive stage authority or reigning in the vocal luster of his formidable baritone, Kudisch took on the aspect of a warm, friendly (unusually talented) neighbor. The performer had a packed house-locals and tourists alike- so completely captivated they were either library silent, laughing, applauding, or answering back aloud. Mothers wanted to give him their daughters- or themselves, men wanted to bond.

Supported by a wide variety of tangy arrangements and a beautifully written, mostly affectation free monologue, Kudisch leads us though his discovery of theater, vocal influences, and a sampling of the journey so far. The show’s title and beautifully performed opening, What Makes Me Tick, is a Michael John LaChiusa song cut from The Wild Party. It’s a decidedly dark lyric in which the character, Jackie, whom Kudisch played, lucidly expounds on his lascivious, amoral behavior. The author decided if Jackie understood what he was doing from the beginning, there would be nowhere to go. “How often do we treat ourselves as the characters we play in life, examining our own lives?” asks Kudisch, explaining the evening’s premise.

Musical childhood memories include a rousing, full throated Blood, Sweat and Tears song, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s iconic “Tradition”—Fiddler on the Roof which he thought was written exclusively for Passover (and longs to perform as Tevye), and “Puff the Magic Dragon” (Leonard Lipton/Peter Yarrow) with lovely rolling piano accompaniment. The numbers are as different as they can be. Each is allowed sufficient space to breathe, evoke our own history, and show off the performer’s surprising range.

With ambitions combining the careers of Carl Sagan and Houdini, Kudisch was constantly grounded for acting out. Confined to a room without television or radio, he discovered his mother’s old 45rpm and 78rpm records and lifelong heroes Sammy Davis Jr., Elvis Presley and Harry Belafonte. A smooth, light-touch rendition of Davis Jr.’s “Candy Man” (Leslie Bricusse/ Anthony Newley) is followed by Elvis Presley’s whomping “That’s All Right Mama” (Arthur Crudup) on which Kudisch solidly plays guitar. Heat rises from the stage as his voice and hips slip-slide through the insinuating lyrics. Next is the traditional Jamaican “Day-O, or “The Banana Boat Song” replete with appropriate accent and inflection. He and his top notch band, who offer friendly, humorous back-up, are obviously having a helluva time. It’s infectious. Clearly we’re on a rollercoaster ride. Often preferring more thematic shows, I find myself whipping along with the wind in my hair wearing a big smile.

“Finally, in my mother’s chest, there was a Broadway Album, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Stephen Sondheim). For Kudisch’s version of “Bring Me My Bride,” originally sung by warrior captain, Miles Gloriosus (imagine a cartoon super hero in a Grecian tunic,) he has us picturing “an eight year old pear-shaped kid” belting out: Come, bring to me my bride/My lust for her no longer can be denied/Convey the news!/I have no time to lose: There are towns to plunder, temples to burn and women to abuse. It’s irresistibly funny. “That’s when I learned who Stephen Sondheim was.”

With no training or particular theatrical dreams, Kudisch found himself almost accidentally auditioning on a high school stage where he was required to be neither loud nor marching, his two areas of expertise. A political science major in college, he was building sets thinking he should be studying when he realized “that was the hobby,” became an actor, and made his way to New York. Audition anecdotes are warm, engaging and self depreciating. “I thought musicals were for people who didn’t know how to act.” Learning about his (vocal) instrument on the job was somewhat humbling.

Songs and stories from theatrical experience continue with “Wouldn’t it Be Nice?” by Michael John LaChiusa, his favorite writer. A challenging vocal and dramatic turn handled with virtuosity, the number exemplifies Kudisch’s affinity for the demands of the material. Also “I like bad boys.” LaChiusa, he says, was influenced by Sondheim, who was influenced by…? “Hammerstein,” someone in the audience calls out. Apparently not what Kudisch has in mind. “When it came to irony, it was Kander and Ebb.” (Timing alone would preclude this theory.) The marvelous “Winning,” he would’ve performed had it not been cut from Steel Pier, swells up out of the performer’s chest against a terrifically evocative vaudeville/side show arrangement. His signature right cheek quiver announces deep, clear-noted vocal gusto. One rides on that voice like a flying carpet. Who influenced Kander & Ebb? “Fred told me the team that threw down the bricks…was Betty Comden and Adolf Green.” A medley from Bells Are Ringing (he played Jeff Moss in the Broadway revival), closes this grouping. Kudisch is working hard. He inhabits role after role, switching tracks to follow each with personable communication. Eye contact is constant and never feels false. He actually registers specific audience reaction—very appealing.

Then, “If there’s anything left to say, it’s that I’m Jewish, but look: square jaw, blue eyes, Roman nose-no one will cast me as a Jew.” “Close Every Door” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Kudisch’s first show, and “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof (Bock/Harnick) indicate part of his aspirational future. “My father says one day I’ll come back to it.” Oddly, these songs are less credible. Intonation seems forced, gravitas missing.

Returning for his encore, Kudisch is greeting by a middle aged woman calling out “You’re very, very good!” Assuring the audience she isn’t his mother, he graciously thanks her and banters briefly. Accessibility is a charm. “This song explains why we’re up here,” he says introducing  ”I Was Here” (Lynn Ahrens/Steve Flaherty) from The Glorious OnesThis is my key to the portal/How I can leave something immortal/Something that time cannot make disappear/ Something to say ‘I was here’. Emotional resonance is visceral.

“What Makes Me Tick” is a polished, good-time crowd pleaser in which undeniable star wattage doesn’t obscure the thespian who chooses to share. Marc Kudisch should come out from behind the footlights more often. He’s wonderful company. The musicians are skilled, symbiotic, and fun to watch. Arrangements by Timothy Splain are bright, apt, and genre jumping.

Marc Kudisch will appear in the Signature Theatre’s Summer Cabaret Series August 1 and 2, 2011
Signature Theatre
Shirlington Village
4200 Campbell Avenue
Arlington, Virginia

Go to the Signature Theatre’s Summer Cabaret Series website for more information.

What Makes Me Tick
Marc Kudisch, Vocals, Guitar
Timothy Splain, Music Director/Pianist
Ritt Henn, Bass
Michael Croiter, Percussion, Classical guitar
Feinstein’s at the Loews Regency

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