Stephen Hanks has been involved in practically every aspect of cabaret. A political science major in college, he’s also been a passionate activist all his life. Depression and disgust with what’s happening in this country evoked the fears of rising white supremacism and undermining of voting rights – now just the tip of the iceberg – predicating these shows. The producer/host currently lives in Arizona where he indefatigably continues to work for democratic causes – while keeping a long arm in cabaret. This is the 10th show he’s mounted whose take will be donated to a handful of those up for decisive elections.
Passing through New York, Hanks managed to pull together an impressive evening with immediate yeses from 13 established vocalists, MD/pianist Tracy Stark, and guest pianist Ian Herman (all of whom donated participation). The generosity of West Bank’s owner Steve Olson and Laurie Beechman’s manager/booker Jonny Mercado made the show possible. Hanks welcomes us as “anti-insurrectionist, pro-democracy, anti-heathens.” Song choices are wildly different and well chosen reflecting smart, committed artists.
Sierra Rein opens this evening with “The Flag Song” (Stephen Sondheim from Assassins), “a love letter disguised as a rant.” The vocalist’s open-throated call to stand up and be counted is precisely phrased, immensely expressive. Next we hear Mary Sue Daniels, a storyteller. “Life Holds On”…given the slightest chance… (Beth Nielsen Chapman) is folksy, universal and hopeful against the odds. Daniels exudes warmth.
Lane Bradbury performs her own “Sleep Walkin’Dream,” a “prayer for our world.” Partly in French, the song arrives a hymn carried on sandy-voiced sincerity. Sue Matsuki offers a tandem “What the World Needs Now” (Burt Bacharach/ Hal David)/“You Must Believe in Spring” “It’s just getting harder and harder to be a glass half full kinda gal,” she ruefully says. You must believe-what the world needs now is love, she sings.
A fierce, theatrical combination of “This Funny World” (Richart Rodgers/Lorenz Hart)/”What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding?” (Nick Lowe) emerges part song, part parlando by way of Karen Oberlin, an artist who’s returned to school in order to be part of the solution. From the piano, Tracy Stark then offers Jill Sobule’s “America Back”: When they say we want our America back/What the fuck do they mean?! A fervid condemnation of bigotry and racism, lyrics also evoke grins. With Ian Herman accompanying, Sandra Bargeman’s ardent “Everyday People” (Sly Stone) includes her own savvy, evangelistic rap. “I’ve begun to understand that if I want to cross bridges, I need to learn to suffer fools,” she wisely notes.
Here Hanks fills us in on candidates for whom the group is raising money tonight. Democrats flipped the house in 2018, then lost 13 seats in 2021. We need to hold on to the House AND Senate. Funds will go to: progressive Charles Booker to unseat Rand Paul in Kentucky; Val Demings to oust Marco Rubio in Florida; Tim Ryan to replace Rob Portman in Ohio; Pastor Raphael Warnock to be victorious in Georgia. In gubernatorial races, Georgia’s Stacy Abrams, Texas’s Beto O’Rourke, and Arizona’s Katie Hobbs are paramount. (Hanks reads a resonant statement from Hobbs.)
Resuming entertainment, Meg Flather rails into unseen right-wingers with “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You”…you’re spoiled! (Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein II- The King and I) The one who loves you best is the king! she practically spits. Inspired by an environmental magazine’s warning that “Mother Earth is depending on us,” Rosemary Loar recorded women from around the world saying “Mother Earth,” each in her own language. We listen. She then sings her own inflamed song (of that title) with back-up by Flather and Stark. It’s an American “J’Accuse!”
Julie Reyburn tells us she’s doing her best to teach her daughter to be a warrior woman, and her son awareness of women’s rights. Her extremely powerful rendition of “Back to Before” (Lynn Ahrens/ Stephen Flaherty- Ragtime) raises the roof with clarion cry. Give this artist a podium! Wow. Laurie Krauz reads from Anne Frank’s diary, ending with “…in the meantime, I must uphold my ideals for perhaps there’ll be a time I’m able to carry them out.” She then launches into a fiery version of Carole King’s “Way Over Yonder” as if testifying in a revival tent. “Vote!” the artist repeats as if chanting. Shivers.
Lisa Viggiano is a teacher whose recent allotment of $75.00 is meant to sustain classroom needs of pencils and colored paper. “In the past 24 hours, Colorado, Texas and Missouri have decided what we really need in classrooms are bullet-proof vests and guns,” she laments. “This is what I have to say…” Pete Seeger’s “If I Had a Hammer” is all the more effective for arriving low key with sorrow and prayer on the back of recent events.
Sarah Rice reads a quote from Alec Guinness reminding us, “the greatest gift is sometimes someone’s outstretched hand.” Her choice is “Nella Fantasia” (Ennio Morricone) – in Italian – with Janice Hall and Sierra Rein – all three trained opera singers: In my fantasy I see a just world where everyone lives in peace and honesty…the lyric says. It’s a moving aria beautifully rendered, lifting the room.
Janice Hall closes with a stirring “Anthem” (Benny Anderson & Bjorn Ulvaeus/ Bjorn Ulvaeus & Tim Rice – Chess), “A song written about Russia which now we sing for the people of Russia and Ukraine and the people here in America: You ask why I love her (the country)/Through wars, death, and despair/She is the constant…I envision a 1900s ship of immigrants sailing into New York harbor. What the #$%&! Has happened to the values of our founding fathers?!
A sing-along of “If I Had a Hammer” acts as optimistic coda.
The show, like all of the series, is inspiring.
Hanks opened with this quote- worth repeating:
Can’t you understand, That if you take a law like evolution and you make it a crime to teach it in the public schools, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools? And the next day you may make it a crime to read about it. And soon you may ban books and newspapers. And then you may turn Catholic against Protestant, and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the mind of humankind. If you can do one, you can do the other. Because fanaticism and ignorance is forever busy and needs feeding. And soon with banners flying and with drums beating we’ll be marching backward BACKWARD through the glorious ages of that Sixteenth Century when bigots burned the man who dared bring enlightenment and intelligence to the human mind! ‘Inherit the Wind’
Opening photo by Helane Blumfield
Other photos by Theresa Giannetti
Blue Wave Reunion 2022- Save Our Democracy Fundraiser
Created by Stephen Hanks
MD/Pianist- Tracy Stark
Guest Pianist-Ian Herman
The Laurie Beechman Theatre
407 West 42nd Street