Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
And so they gather once again like migrated birds instinctively drawn to the annual Cabaret Convention, the smorgasbord of an art still beloved. From all over the country, hotels are booked, other shows ticketed. Some out of town attendees meet only once a year on this occasion, while local denizens take the opportunity to greet favorite artists and compare opinions. The 27th edition of the celebratory event boasts a 15 year-old newcomer as well as performers from London and Australia. Buzz is palpable.
KT Sullivan by Maryann Lopinto
Artistic Director of the Mabel Mercer Foundation/Host, KT Sullivan, opens the show with a high, light version of Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top.” Tonight, she might be singing about the audience or the extraordinary fascinator perched on her chignon. (Piano-Jon Weber, Bass- Steve Doyle, Drums- Rob Garcia)
Next we’re treated to Robert Creighton who must run to the theater where he’s starring in his own co-written musical Cagney. “No matter what your political leanings, sometimes it’s hard to see how great this country is.” Creighton performs George M. Cohan’s “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” unfathomably without dancing. Renditions are easy, slightly nasal, with apt Cagney inflection. (MD/piano- Matt Perri)
Highlights of the evening follow.
Josephine Bianco; Kelly McDonald by Maryann Lopinto
A finalist at both the Metrostar and Michael Feinstein’s Great American Songbook Academy competitions, 15 year-old Josephine Bianco offers Jule Styne/Bob Merrill’s “People” displaying all the right instincts. The performer takes her time, looks into audience faces, and imbues the number with both personal expression and subtle modulations. Someone to watch.
Burgeoning artist, Kelly McDonald, introduces one of the evening’s few contemporary numbers, “Latte Boy” (Marcy Heisler/ Zina Goldrich). Her vocal is lovely, character embodiment innocent and credible. Kudos to the appealing McDonald for taking a risk. (Piano on both-Jon Weber)
Stacy Sullivan; Natalie Douglas by Stephen Sorokoff
From new CD Stranger in a Dream, we hear Stacy Sullivan’s deft, airbrushed “I’m Beginning to See the Light” (Duke Ellington/Don George/Johnny Hodges/ Harry James) and a well rendered swing selection in which the vocalist shifts octaves like an aerialist (MD/piano-Jon Weber).
The surprising opening of Act II is a buoyant “Helpless” (Lin-Manuel Miranda from Hamilton) featuring Karen Oberlin, KT Sullivan, Natalie Douglas as Eliza and Jon Weber- rapping! (MD/piano-Jon Weber). Douglas is then palpably surprised by winning the Donald F. Smith Award endowed by Adela and Larry Elow. Her interpretation of Jerome Kern/ Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” is beautifully understated. (MD/piano- Mark Hartman)
Vivian Reed and Dancers by Stephen Sorokoff
Broadway’s Vivian Reed unleashes “Sweet Georgia Brown” (Ben Bernie/Maceo Pinkard/Kenneth Casey) as a full production number replete with choreographed backup dancers and bebop scat followed by a gospel “Believe” (admirably without overshooting the mark), which visibly courses through her. (MD/Piano-William Foster McDaniel)
Kristoffer Lowe’s jaunty, tandem “A Quarter to Nine” (Harry Warren/Al Dubin) and “If You Feel Like Singing, Sing” segues from stylish to infectiously happy. Lowe is old school classy. Making his Convention debut, the immensely elegant, decidedly decadent Kim David Smith captivates in English and pristine German with renditions of “Illusions” and “Eine Kleine…” (Piano-Tracy Stark)
Kristoffer Lowe; Kim David Smith by Maryann Lopinto
Irving Berlin’s “It Only Happens When I Dance With You” is married to Amanda McBroom’s poignant “Dance” by Susan Winter who takes us with her on every emotional journey. Shimmering arrangement by MD/pianist Alex Rybeck. The reliably show-stopping Carole J. Bufford erupts into “St. James Infirmary” with powerful vocal from chest to throat, growl to howl, sinuous moves, and a command of the stage we rarely see. (Matt Baker-piano, Tom Hubbard-bass, Rob Garcia-drums, Charlie Coranics- superior Trumpet)
Maureen McGovern is appreciatively presented this year’s Mabel Mercer Award. The artist then sings two immensely original takes on numbers from The Wizard of Oz (Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg): a charming preface of “Optimistic Voices” (You’re out of the woods…) leads to an a capella and acoustic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” which one can only call indelible. Showcasing her range, McGovern then delivers an ardent, “Blues in the Night” (Harold Arlen/Johnny Mercer) with an entirely different voice. Wow. (MD/Piano-Jeff Harris)
Maureen McGovern by Stephen Sorokoff
Also featuring: Two Randy Newman songs from Karen Oberlin-one appealingly shadowy, the other, a dissonantly paired political ditty (Piano-Jon Weber); T. Oliver Reid’s bubbly “I’m Throwin’ a Ball Tonight” by Cole Porter (MD/Piano-Larry Yurman); A warm Fran Landesman/Alec Wilder number from Barbara Fasano who makes us empathize with every sentiment (Piano-Eric Comstock); Stephan Bednarczyk’s angry take on Noel Coward’s “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage Mrs. Worthington” which defangs implicit wit…
Jacob Storms, whose voice is like an articulated hum, chooses two iconic songs on which he unfortunately leaves no personal stamp. (Piano-Jon Weber) Eric Yves Garcia’s rendition of Cole Porter’s “I’m A Gigolo” emerges vocally forced instead of insouciant, though the artist is capable of the latter. It should be noted, to my knowledge, this is the first time superb performer Leslie Hutchenson,“Hutch,” has been mentioned on the Convention stage. If you don’t know his work, I highly recommend research.
Barbara Fasano; Matt Baker by Stephen Sorokoff
Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue” is evocatively performed by Matt Baker including breathy vocal and arrangement that sounds like fine, 1950s jazz. (Bass-Endea Owens, Drums-Darrian Douglas) He’s less successful with an over long, dense interpretation of the theme from The Apartment (Charles Williams.) Crowd pleaser Christina Bianco safely repeats her Kander and Ebb “Cabaret” turn for the umpteenth time, imitating such as Julie Andrews and Judy Garland. The talented vocalist might consider moving on. (Piano-Jon Weber)
Thanks to Steve Doyle and Ron Hubbard, bassists, Rob Garcia-drums.
The evening ran a long 2 ½ hours, but offered many rewarding performances.
I would call this an appreciation. I’ve listened to Stranger in a Dream several times now, hearing something new or drifting at different junctures each pass. The recording is, in fact, dreamy. Though ostensibly a celebration of Marian McPartland inspired by Stacey Sullivan’s appearance on Jon Weber’s radio show, Piano Jazz, the two musicians have made these songs their own.
This is music you want to hear wrapped in someone’s arms, sharing a romantic dinner or working your way through a bottle of good wine. Vocals are often diaphanous, phrasing deft, accompaniment sensitive.
Sullivan sighs into Stephen Sondheim’s “Loving You.” The ends of phrases leave afterglow. Its brief instrumental is meditative. An elegant rendition. “Stranger in a Dream” (Irving Caesar/ Marian McPartland) evokes shadows, curling smoke, collars up, alleyways. We’re beckoned by Steve Doyle’s haunting bass. Vocal is almost visibly sinuous. I imagine the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland, replete with hookah. “In the Days of Our Love” (Peggy Lee/Marian McPartland) is like sorting through packets of faded, ribbon-bound love letters and stained, curling photographs. Jon Weber’s piano caresses.
“Oh What a Beautiful Mornin” (Rodgers and Hammerstein) is borne by an uncommonly original arrangement. Distant clop, clop horse-hoof-vamp fades to the languid, waking singer, rubbing sleep from her eyes, stretching, putting on coffee, optimistic perhaps in the wake of a good dream. Sullivan makes this intimate rather than the vast cornfields to which we’re accustomed; ‘one woman’s experience.
“September in the Rain”and “Come Away With Me” (Al Dubin; Nora Jones/Harry Warren)-an inspired pairing, offer escape rather than brooding reflection. Bone-damp ghostliness is broken by light, stage left at the back. A second surprising combination arrives with “All the Things You Are” (Oscar Hammerstein/Jerome Kern) and Chopin’s Waltz in B Minor Opus 69 #2. ‘Just beautiful.
Even classic swing numbers, though up-tempo, are predominantly subdued. A cottony “Prelude to a Kiss” (Duke Ellington/Irving Gordon/Irving Mills) never gets dense or insistent;“It Don’t Mean a Thing (If You Ain’t Got That Swing)” and Ellington’s “Jump for Joy” eschew pounding boogie woogie – though footwork is fancy and the girl goes flying. During “Lullaby of Birdland” (George Shearing/George David Weiss), Sullivan elongates her lyric while Weber’s fast, precise piano jitterbugs on its own caffeinated recognizance and Doyle’s bass sounds like a syncopated hummingbird.
“Castles in the Sand” (Walter Marks/Marian McPartland), one of my particular favorites, begins a capella like a child’s rope skipping song. It’s young, buoyant and somehow delicate. Nick Russo’s strings tickle.
Musicianship is grand. Overall feelings: pleasure.
Opening: Left photo: Maryann Lopinto; CD photo-Bill Westmoreland
Internal Photo: Stephen Sorokoff
Stacy Sullivan-Stranger in a Dream
Jon Weber- MD/Piano, Steve Doyle-Bass, Nick Russo-Guitar & Mandolin Click to buy on Harbinger
Part Master Class, part jamboree and about as much fun as you can legally have at an evening of musical theater, this high test extravaganza shares, one gathers, but a smidgen of material jettisoned from what we now enjoy at the St. James Theater. Authors Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick wrote 54 songs for Something Rotten!
What was eventually chosen is arguably not only swell but best serves the piece. Cleverness of songs currently relegated to the brothers’ trunk, is, however, formidable. Though some are “site” specific, others could successfully be performed by cabaret and concert singers. Many of us in the sold-out crowd at Feinstein’s/54Below tonight, as well as those exiting the Broadway production, would be surefire customers for a CD of alternates, replete with Karey’s entertaining, explanatory, anecdotal repartee.
For those of you unfamiliar with the rollicking show (see my review), it concerns brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom “struggling in the shadows of that well known rock star Lin-Manuel Miranda – I mean Shakespeare.” (Karey) Welcome to the Renaissance/With poets, painters, and bon vivants…the original cast company sings. “I remember hearing that song and thinking it doesn’t sound much like Sondheim, but so many have told us they can’t get it out of their heads.” Right on, Karey. Part of the audience mouth the lyrics, many clap in time.
For tonight’s presentation, the gracious and very funny Karey, also on piano, acts as raconteur, while Wayne plays piano and guitar. Both writers, by the way, can sing. Also on piano is Musical Director Mat Eisenstein who manages an entirely new, complex production for this jam-packed, two-off performance.
At the beginning, “we went trolling through Shakespeare and wrote songs but didn’t have a plot.” By 2010, wondering whether the concept was viable, Karey and Wayne approached Kevin McCollum (producer of Rent). When he responded positively, the Kirkpatricks brought in John O’Farrell as third collaborator, “an incredibly funny writer who also knew a lot about Shakespeare, which meant less reading for us!”
“Words You Never Heard,” which calls out some of the many Shakespeare introduced into the English language, was one of those songs initially pitched. Broadway’s current Bard, Christian Borle, who won both Drama Desk and Tony Awards for his inspired performance, takes the stage with character swagger. After all, “he put the I am in iambic pentameter.” When he doesn’t have a word, the Bard makes it up. Some of those originated are: pander, pageantry, obsequious, stealthily, bedazzled…Borle delivers a full-out, cocky turn, punctuated by provocative fanny wag. There’s not a flicker of unfamiliarity with new material.
Next, Karey tells us about the origin of the now blockbuster production number “A Musical.” The unheard-of genre is foretold to Nick Bottom by Nostradamus (Brad Oscar) so that the underdog can compete with Shakespeare. We hear an initial rendition, then the more up-tempo version requested by Director Casey Nicholaw.
Nostradamus (Spoken):It appears to be a play where the dialogue stops/And the plot is conveyed through song. Nick (Spoken): Through song? Nostradamus: Yes. Nick: Wait, so an actor is saying his lines and out of nowhere he just starts singing? Nostradamus: Yes. Nick: Well that is the (Singing) Stupidest thing that I have ever heard/You’re doing a play, got something to say/So you sing it?… The dizzying number is a mash-up of familiar musical tunes with lyrics tailored to the moment. At the St. James, it has all the glitz and glamour one could wish for. Our grinning audience bounces in their seats.
John Cariani (Nigel Bottom) offers the deep-sixed “Nigel’s Lament,” dear to the authors’ hearts because it’s about a writer who thinks he’s no good: It all comes down to this, I suck, I suck/I hold my quill, but it still runs amuck…The company provides a choral arrangement including sucky, sucky, suck, man, you suck (in grave-faced harmony). Cariani’s (Nigel’s) eyebrows are knit to a point in utter humiliation.
A rejected celebration of romantic poetry that features Nigel (Cariani) and love interest, Portia (Kate Reinders), arrives as a 1970s Elton-Johnish number: love, love, love, love, magical, mythical love…the pair sing with tangy period flavor and infectious pseudo-gravitas. The two voices are terrific together, expressions priceless.
David Hibbard (Standby for Brian D’Arcy James’s Nick Bottom and three other roles) performs “On the Top” (which became “Bottom’s Gonna Be On Top”)…’om not gonna stop/until the Bottoms are on the top…An excellent vocalist, he also, as Nick, palpably vibrates with frustrated ambition.
Company member Marisha Wallace, with Cariani and Hibbard, sings a discarded “Right Hand Man,” as Nick’s wife Bea. Originally written as if ditsy support filled with obtuse insults, the number evolved into a demand for recognition of equal strength/ability. Wallace has a clarion voice we’re sure to hear in future outings and conveys the feckless woman exactly as the Kirkpatricks first envisioned her. The men are deadpan funny.
Heidi Blickenstaff (Bea) joins Cariani, Reinders and Hibbard for the very pretty “Lovely Love” in which we see all four actors occupy their roles. Blickenstaff closes her eyes and sighs into it, Cariani looks like a hopeful puppy, Reinders clasps hands at her breast overcome with pleasure, Hibbard expands with the possibility.
Karey and Wayne play the argumentative Nick and Nigel in an abandoned “The Trouble With You” whose consummate wordsmithing, like volleys of verse across a net, is an admired hoot. Nor, on the Broadway stage, did we see Nick and Nigel in the stocks among other prisoners, tap dancing (from the waist down) to “Desperate Times,” a metaphoric and currently politically apt complaint by those undeserved of such punishment.
We close with “Omlette” (the musical) and visions of dancing eggs. The Kirkpatricks wrote ten iterations of this! Sections from several range from rock n’ roll to the Andrews Sisters for inspiration. Alas, poor yolk, I know thee well…You make wine from sour grapes/ You got a flat pancake, hey, call it a crepe/When life gives you eggs, make an omelette…Om-om-om/Om-om-om/Om-om-om/Omelette…Who needs sugarplums?!
A chorus of company members throw themselves into this evening with gleeful abandon (as well as professionalism), enjoying it almost as much as the audience, dropping not a single new stitch. These include: Matt Allen, Elizabeth Early, Linda Griffin, Courtney Ivantosch, Aaron Kaburick, Tari Kelly, Beth Nicely, Aleks Pevec, Angie Schworer
The subversively instructive shenanigans were joyous and brimming with talent.