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.
Goodbye, Mr. Chips is a sentimental 1934 novella by Robert Hilton (with radio, stage and film adaptations) about self effacing career teacher, Mr. Chipping. Nicknamed Mr. Chips by his students, the book’s hero spent his life in the profession and was much beloved.
When Corinna Sowers-Adler talks about her theater and voice students, she radiates enthusiasm with warm, even wattage. In the tradition of the Hilton book and Dead Poets Society, rookies from 10-19 learn considerably more than any curriculum. Methods are user-friendly. Technique, and in some cases, lifesolutions, are tailored to individuals. Sowers-Adler often finds herself acting as trusted mentor and/or confidante. “You’re nurturing the person, not just the performer.” The educator has found, as Joseph Campbell would say, her own palpable bliss.
Left: First place win-talent show age 9; Right: Senior Recital Schuylkill Haven Area High School age 16
Directly after graduating with a degree in Theater, Sowers-Adler began to teach voice at the community Conservatory based in her alma mater. The young woman passed on expertise honed from the age of 12 when she’d been introduced to the E. Herbert Caesari’s School of Bel Canto in a bespoke course of study that included opera, art songs, and musicals. “It’s like a tap dancer should take ballet because it gives you strength and core. Bel Canto lets you sing any style.” Its technique, she tells me, helps a vocalist find his/her own voice by approaching it as an instrument, making singing as effortless as speaking.
“I believe in the marriage of acting and singing…Whether I’m delivering a monologue or talking to you passionately about something, words come out naturally, but like rushes of wind. (She demonstrates in the telling.) Did you hear how much breath and diction emerged with the word passion?” she asks with a tone of encouragement and patience. “If I were singing that line, I’d need emphasis, the same kind of burst of breath. I want students to learn how to speak when they sing.”
Having resolved to be a performer at age 4, winning a talent contest at 9 with – wait for it, Whitney Houston’s version of “The Greatest Love of All” – Sowers-Adler then also toured locally with a children’s company. The following semester, she founded a preteen musical theater class at the Conservatory. “I was auditioning and performing, but I just fell in love with teaching. It never felt like something I would do until.”
There was method to her madness. The nascent instructor stuck close to Wilkes University waiting for the graduation of Nicholas Adler. Two years later, they wed and incorporated NiCori Studios & Productions – an amalgam of their names. At first, private students came to the house.
Early acting and directing programs
Sowers-Adler built up what became a full fledged program at the Conservatory using only student support staff. For 10 years, she taught virtually all classes: Acting for Young Performers, Theater and Imagination (Story-telling), Musical Theater… Annually, the kids would perform a full scale show. By the time she left, there were 7 different areas of study.
To say she rested on appreciable laurels would be a vast misnomer. Vast. A few years into the Conservatory program, she and her husband took over the Pocono Playhouse Children’s Theater (5 years) and, midway through that tenure, added Bucks County Playhouse Children’s Theater to their artistic direction and management roster (3 years), during which she directed 10 shows in 11 weeks. Think about that.
Now add her schedule at Wilkes, responsibilities as Director of Theater New Jersey School of Dramatic Arts (5 years) AND as Executive Director Gaslamp Academy of Performing Arts (3 years). NiCori closed during those summers. Were the venues in proximity of one another, I ask? (Beat) “No. I was in my car all the time, but we had a ball.” Clones? The word “overwhelmed” seems to have been omitted from Sowers-Adler’s lexicon.
The Wizard of Oz: Nicholas Adler, Kesley Stalter, Heidi Zimdahl, Kate Hoover, Mike Durkin, Nick Pearce
“You name a fairytale, I directed it. MTI (Music Theater International) has a junior version of a great many shows!” Sowers-Adler presented The Wizard of Oz 12 times. Older kids were given characters while the little ones played Munchkins. How do you help a young child to memorize something? I ask. “You don’t have them memorize, you have them learn it by making choices. Take a direction like Sally had a balloon and walked down the street. What color was the balloon? What street was she on and where was she going? The kid won’t forget the line because he/she has made it into a picture.”
Sowers-Adler also uses the system with older actors. “The stronger your choices are, the more vibrant and real a piece becomes to both you and your audience.” The same approach is applied to singing – deconstructing lyrics for meaning, building back stories for characters. Some of her students write pages and pages of history. “If we can get them to fall in love with the work, that’s the thing.” She beams.
Many summer aspirants were those she was training elsewhere. A boy who started with her at 12 just graduated from Yale with a degree in directing. The oldest are in their mid-20s. Tight knit relationships are formed. Some groups become lifelong friends. Seasonal theaters are not run for educational purposes, though Sowers-Adler seems to work outside the box. Young people learn in the doing. “If a kid is right for something, I don’t care whether they’re 13 or 19.” The environment is professional.
Stage Mothers and Fathers come with the territory. My subject once received a “Who do you think you are?!” registered letter from a parent whose offspring had been promised a role by the departing director. Because 400 (!) kids tried out, Sowers-Adler made “Yes”, “No” and “Maybe” piles. Wisely, she videotaped auditions to reference back. It was apparently very clear why the woman’s daughter landed in “No.” The girl’s video and scorecard were sent to her mom by return mail. There was no response. “Another mother followed me home. It was like, Oh My God!”
NiCori Studios & Productions has been housed in the Oakeside Bloomfield Cultural Center since 2008 when the couple moved to Bloomfield, New Jersey (from Pennsylvania). Youth performers/students paying semester based tuition range from 12-19. In February, acting for ages 9-11 will be added. “I get them both raw and having had lessons. Sometimes I have to unteach, which is more of a challenge.” It’s not necessary to audition to take classes, only for a role in the yearly musical.
What’s the difference in teaching a 10 year old and an 18 year old? I ask. A 10 year old, she tells me, is still naïve. There’s opportunity to give them a really good start. The craft emerges a bit more like play. With teens, Sowers-Adler often becomes a confidante and mentor.
Apparently a number of these kids are “outcasts” at their schools. “When I grew up, if there was bullying, you’d leave it when you went home. Now it can follow you no matter where you are.” Competition and pressures increase as her students get ready for college. NiCori thinks of itself as a safe haven. “I put pressure on them to be the best they can be, but there are no consequences.”
Corinna with Kevin Bergen
Kevin, who is gay and an outspoken theater devotee, had such a tough time in school he dropped out and finished with a GED. Sometimes he’d telephone Sowers-Adler in the evening or on weekends. Now he’s a straight-A college student. “If anything happens to me, I want this kid to take over. I’ve had him almost 10 years. He’s like family.”
“…Corinna taught me basically everything I know about the art of theater. As the years went by, I witnessed her true artistry…Words I will always remember in regard to both performing and true life are Don’t act, just be, the key to true art…At the age of 18, I realize I have an interest in directing because of the way she showed me to look at how life is presented on stage… I often say I would’ve ended up one of those troubled teens who never found their way without her. She made a home for kids like me. I can’t thank her enough.” Kevin Bergen
Elizabeth Nucci as Catherine in Pippin
Elizabeth Nucci who started with Sowers-Adler at 8 and is now a high school freshman, was so consistently hard on herself, she dropped out for a year with anxiety issues despite Nicori’s encouragement and her parents’ emotional support. When she returned, cast in a musical, the young actress had difficulty hitting a pivotal note. “She’d cry, I just can’t do it! which you’re not allowed to say in my studio. You have to put a quarter in a jar if you do.”
Sowers-Adler worked hard with the girl who stayed the course and nailed it in the show. “The other night, we had our voice recital and she sang Victor Herbert’s The Prima Donna Song, high D flats and everything. It was awesome.” (She effortlessly demonstrates.) While self doubt doesn’t disappear overnight, those moments remain valuable reminders.
Corinna and her students onstage – Something Beautiful – The Appel Room – Photo by Stephen Sorokoff
Part of the vocal program at NiCori centers on Cabaret. Sowers-Adler, who is a professional vocalist, has appeared in New York and New Jersey since 2010, at clubs, NiCori-produced Music at The Mansion (in the solarium of the cultural center), and Lincoln Center. Fall 2016, a handful of her students joined with the artist on stage at the Appel Room in Something Beautiful. “I love teaching and directing musical theater, but I love to PERFORM Cabaret. It’s the idea of having a musical conversation and of being vulnerable.”
“At 17, I was introduced to NYC Cabaret by Corinna and I’ve been hooked ever since. I was very nervous for my first solo show, Corinna told me to treat it as if you are entertaining in your living room. That way it is both comfortable and you are surrounded by loved ones… I love Cabaret because it can be anything you want it to be. I’m very thankful.” Gerry Mastrolia
Gerry Mastrolia hosting NiCori’s Winter Gala
Do the kids understand that kind of openness and exposure? “Yes. Some can get to it and others can’t. Even the ones who hate it know it’s good for them…” Sowers-Adler persuades them the audience is on their side and that unique perspective on a lyric/song is what makes it beautiful. “If they look at the floor or ceiling while performing, I often tell them the floor doesn’t care!” Storytelling is an art. A couple of get-your-feet-wet shows are performed in New Jersey, culminating each Spring in a New Works Cabaret Showcase at New York’s Don’t Tell Mama.
“Corinna has helped me to grow from a kid who loved to sing into a real performer! Every time I step out of the studio I feel more confident and better about my singing as well as any problems that were bothering me that day. Singing at NiCori has given me opportunities that I’m grateful for and exposed me to all music and theater that I love!” 12 year-old Zoe Gelman who appeared at the Mabel Mercer Foundation’s annual Cabaret Convention in October 2016
Zoe Gelman and Corinna – Photo by Stephen Sorokoff
Each summer, NiCori offers a 5 week, 5 day-a-week Theatre Camp concluding in a musical produced at The Westminster Arts Center. Twenty to 30 youngsters participate. Into the Woods is planned for 2017. Show auditions preface the season. Attendees immediately start to learn group numbers.
Classes, skewed towards the needs of that year’s chosen musical, sometimes begin with what Sowers-Adler calls a “no tension”= freeform dance to loosen up. There are focus exercises like rhythmically passing around a ball of energy while calling out the alphabet. The creative instructor uses a lot of visuals. When the soft palate needs to lift, kids are asked to imagine a balloon at the back of the throat. Connecting to the next phrase might conjure a train hurtling down the track. Breathing and stretching are employed to dissipate tension.
Like Sally walking down a street, the group discusses what the character wants, obstacles, risks, even archetypes. At what age, I wonder, do kids understand the nature of archetypes? Sowers-Adler sometimes starts with these. “They’re so recognizable. How do people perceive me, how do I perceive myself? You’re often cast according to this. I always tell them, don’t spend your life trying to be Cinderella if you’re the Fairy Godmother. Be the best Fairy Godmother you can be.” A NiCori student knows the difference between character actors and ingénues, but Sowers-Adler eschews those terms.
Both NiCori and its camp include what many experience as first rejection. Maybe you want to be the witch and you’re not. Sowers-Adler says this is a matter of either “a preparation thing” or “the person is just not right for it.” She never leaves a young actor hanging, making sure to inform each on what her decision was based. “I tell them they won’t often be told. But this is about education.”
Teaching at Oakside
What about kids who simply don’t have the talent? Sowers-Adler reminds parents, this is a business. “My own husband is a great example. He started as a child actor in theater, but on the way discovered theater management.” Nicholas Adler is currently House Manager at Jazz at Lincoln Center as well as Executive Director of NiCori Studios and Productions. “If you really love this world, you’ll find your part in it. If you’re only looking for your name in lights, you’ll be disappointed.”
NiCori offers a full roster of courses with more on the horizon. Every year it produces a full length musical as well as Music at the Mansion, and New York club showcases. Sowers-Adler currently coaches 31 private voice students and is looking forward to working on the CD of her own recent show, High Standards.
Nicolas Adler and Corinna Sowers-Adler
Starting bare bones, the organization now has two stage managers, choreographer, a musical director, and designers for sets, light and sound. (Freelance.) This December, in hopes of both expansion and the ability to offer scholarships, NiCori presented its first Fundraising Gala.
“It must be tremendously interesting to be a schoolmaster, to watch students grow up and help them along; to see their characters develop and what they become when they leave school and the world gets hold of them. I don’t see how you could ever get old in a world that’s always young.” Goodbye Mr. Chips* by James Hilton
Corinna in Performance
Corinna Sowers-Adler has been illuminating students for 18 years. She’s a happy woman. And incredibly busy.
* Dead Poets Society is a 1989 film about inspirational teacher John Keating at a Vermont boarding school
Opening: Corinna Sowers-Adler and her students Photos courtesy of Corinna Sowers Adler and NiCori unless otherwise credited
On a lovely early autumn Saturday (9/17) The Metropolitan Room hosted its first Pet Cabaret. It may now take a modest bowwow. I have never had much patience for clubbing baby seals; indeed I saw none today at the Met Room. But when it comes to shooting urban animals, photographs that is, I’m your man.
Lee Day, “I’ve Gotta Crow”
Lee Day, sporting Milk Bone earrings and a “Lady and the Tramp” shirt, sang a mixed bag of animal-related numbers and shared bits of her life. She opened with a clean verse of “Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals” (Michael O Donoghue) made famous, ahem . . . , by Gilda Radner. She sang a bit from “Biscuits are a Dog’s Best Friend” – without apologies to Styne and Robin (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). Then “I’ve Gotta Crow” (Charlap, Leigh), “Talk to the Animals” (Darin), etc.; you get the idea.
Day’s love of animals has gained her entrée to numerous experiences and celebrities – both before and after achieving some renown. Early in her career she discovered she was a kind of “cat whisperer” when rescuing the feline of an opera singer from a precarious perch. The singer was so grateful that she “gave” Day access to an idol of hers, Doris Day (no relation). Doris Day called Lee Day at an appointed hour and they immediately hit it off over their common cause – talking at length. Doris encouraged Lee to pursue her dream – and she did. They have spoken often since that day.
Lee Day and Metropolitan Room Patrons
Lee grooms, and entertains, pets; indeed, she provides grooming house-calls. She has serviced, so to speak, pets of Frank Sinatra, Lauren Bacall, Joan Rivers and Mary Tyler Moore. She has appeared on television with Regis Philbin, Sally Jesse Raphael and, in England, with Terry Wogan. She was seen on the Terry Wogan show by the Queen and Princess Di who then asked to meet her; Day sang for the princes when they were smaller than she. Day is a proponent of pound puppies and does not subscribe to remote animal care; all animal care should be transparent to owners. All of her grooming comes with pet entertainment, but not all entertainment comes with grooming. For example, Lee does entertain at pet weddings and bark-mitzvahsTM.
Day explained in the course of her show that she suffers from Noonan’s syndrome, a condition affecting her learning capacity as well as her physical state (including, particularly the heart). Still, most of us could benefit from whatever has affected Day’s heart; she is guileless and effusive, and she clearly loves animals. She has built for herself a unique career and a remarkable life and, in the process, gained apparent contentment.
Lee Day and Anna Lively sing “He’s a Tramp”
Lee Day was the name on the show marquee, but she was nicely supported by friend Anna Lively, a regular cabaret performer, who joined Day on stage for a lovely and amusing rendition of “He’s a Tramp” (lyrics by Peggy Lee and Sonny Burke, music by Oliver Wallace with an assist from Peggy Lee, baying by Lee Day). Both were loosely accompanied on the Piano by Jeff Franzel, an uber-able musician who has played with Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme and Les Brown, among others, and now writes songs for the likes of The Temptations, Placido Domingo and Josh Groban, as eclectic a group of performers as one can cram into three personnae.
Following the show, doggy treats were made available (by the Met Room) to all comers. In New York (unless it’s Trump) you blink and you miss it. It was sweet, if a tad sentimental, and it may not come again.
The last show of Opera New York’s Summer Series features one martyred suicide, one death at the hands of a jealous husband, one angry stabbing, one execution by firing squad, and one florid passing from tuberculosis. For those of you unversed in the genre, this evokes Madame Butterfly (Giacomo Puccini), Cavalleria Rusticana (Pietro Mascagni), Carmen (Georges Bizet), Tosca (Giacomo Puccini) and La Traviata (Giuseppe Verdi).
Host/Narrator Jason Graae welcomes us to this festival of death with a rousing tongue-in-cheek rendition of “Willkommen” (Cabaret) “…inside the Met…Room, life is beeoodival, death is beeoodival, even the orchezdra is beeoodival…” followed by “The Party’s Over-ture.” Justifying his parents’ lesson costs (he says), Graae plays the oboe (rather well), lightens, and brightens the concert with wry, contemporary clue-ins as to each opera’s story.
Madame Butterfly, for example, is the “typical” tale of a US naval officer (tenor Edgar Jaramillo as Pinkerton) who “loves to drop his anchor everywhere.” The American falls in love with, weds, beds, and abandons “an underage Japanese girl” (soprano Veronica Loiacono as Cio Cio San). When he returns with a wife three years later, Pinkerton learns he has a son. Butterfly believes the only way to give the boy what she cannot, is to take herself out of the picture. She commits Harakiri.
We hear portions of the Love Duet, Un bel di the Flower Duet (Butterfly with handmaiden Suzuki- mezzo Jodi Karem), Addio, and Tu Tu Tu, the heroine’s farewell. Loiacono can be shrill; long phrases abort rather than diminish. Karem is clarity itself and a good actress. Jaramillo manages to express his character in a few gestures. His vocals are appealing and expansive.
Veronica Loiacono, Elena Heimur
Cavalleria Rusticana is the story of the couple Turridu (Jaramillo) and Lola (Karem), “a showgirl” (a la the Barry Manilow song) who part when he joins the army. The soldier returns to find his inamorata married to the richer Aldio and rebounds with Santuzza (Loiacono). Lola, however, is “under his skin” and that affair resumes. “This can’t end well.” Eventually Santuzza rats on Turridu. Hoist with her own petard, she provokes the fight that kills her lover. Oh, and there’s an angry mother in there somewhere.
Arias in this section are Siciliana, Voi lo sapete, Tu qui, Santuzza!, Fior di giaggiolo.
Karem’s voice soars with confidence and control. Octaves shift seamlessly, emerging with finesse. The antagonistic duet with Jamarillo showcases terrific balance as that artist matches passion and skill. Physical direction enhances. Loiacono vocally fares better in this piece. Her character’s spitefulness telegraphs.
Carmen, ‘A gypsy hooker” is represented by a quick (water pistol) death; Tosca arrives (and departs) a mere yelp from the stage.
Edgar Jaramille, Robert Borgatti
La Traviata, inspired by Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias, describes “high class hooker,” Violetta (soprano Elena Heimur), content with her life until she meets young, dashing Alfredo (Jamarillo). The courtesan “falls in love and shares fettuccine.” Riddled with tuberculosis, she’s determined to live fully as long as she can, forgoing her dissipate life. “Alfred thinks TB or not TB.” (Actually, he has no idea how ill she is.) They move together to the picturesque countryside. (Refer to the Greta Garbo film.)
The young man’s conservative father (baritone Robert Borgatti) visits “while Alfredo’s out buying Puttanesca” and convinces Violetta to give up his son for the sake of his future. She painfully writes “a Dear John’ letter” and returns to the habit of partying without heart. Several months later, Violetta is on her death bed. Alfredo finds out the truth and rushes to her side.
Edgar Jaramille and Jodi Karem; Jodi Karem
Portions of arias Sempre Libera, Dei mei bolentti ppiriti, Di te’ alla gio va ni, O mio Alfredo, Di provenza, Addio del passato, and Parigio Caro are performed. Elena Heimur seemingly sings without lyric. Despite musical fluency, enunciation is nonexistent. Jamarillo is believably ardent and then filled with remorse. His singing is palpably warm.
Guest Robert Borgatti is the highlight of the evening. His resonant, yet nuanced vocals are a constant pleasure. A capella showcases rather than revealing flaws. Borgatti imbues every lyric with intention. He’s strong, sympathetic, and true.
The company closes with a spirited rendition of the drinking song, Brindidi, from La Traviata.
In a series like this, Opera New York allows one to sample without being intimidated or sitting through an entire piece.’A good opportunity to broaden the base of essentially beautiful, highly theatrical music.
Photos by Maryann Lopinto Opening: Veronica Loiacono, Jodi Karem, Edgar Jaramille, Elena Heimur, Robert Borgatti
Opera New York Inc. is dedicated to producing unique and innovative productions of opera, music theater, and concerts that are accessible to contemporary, widely diversified audiences.
Opera New York Summer Festival presents Opera to DIE For Artistic Director Judith Fredricks Music Director/Piano- Michael Pilafian Hosted and Narrated by Jason Graae Vocalists: Veronica Loiacono, Edgar Jaramille, Elena Heimur, Jodi Karem, Robert Borgatti The Metropolitan Room 34 West 22nd Street August 14, 2016 Venue Calendar
On the 25th Anniversary of this show’s original opening, (the vocalist’s debut at the fabled Oak Room of The Algonquin Hotel), and the 1st Anniversary of Stephen Hanks’ monthly series New York Cabaret’s Greatest Hits, Jeff Harnar and Alex Rybeck thrilled a club (The Metropolitan Room) so full of enthusiastic audience we practically sat on one another’s laps.
Worthy of The Hollywood Bowl or London Palladium (are you listening New Jersey Performing Arts Center?), this exceptional evening manages to embrace 21 Broadway musicals that opened in or were still running during its memorable 1959 season. The piece, performed with gusto, clarity, and taste, is cleverly framed as a show unto itself (top ticket price $9.20) with narrative arc illuminated by some of the best constructed medleys I’ve ever heard. Occasional duets add sparkle. (MD/pianist/Alex Rybeck.)
Bookended by a splendid arrangement of “Tonight” (West Side Story) delivered in three musical chapters – light piano cadenza, modulated upswell, Broadway fervor and a gauzy “Till Tomorrow”(Fiorello) – this adroitly written show also contains opening and second act Overtures and an amusing Entr’acte. The latter skillfully conjectures what people might be talking about in Shubert Alley at the time.
Jeff Harnar doesn’t just look around the room, he looks into our eyes making this an immersive experience. The performer is expressive and charming. Lightness of carriage and infectious love of the material makes us feel as if we’re at a stylish, showbiz party. Harnar is in superb, muscular voice. He musically turns on a dime and delivers appreciable script without dropping a stitch. There are songs performed with theatrical accents and others he inhabits with seemingly fresh character awareness. Sara Louise Lazarus reprises and conceivably improves upon her expert Direction.
We meet our boy and girl with “A Perfect Evening” (First Impressions.) He says I’ve seen her kind before…uppity laugh… She says, I’ve seen his kind before…head in the clouds, nose inthe air… The lyric is party spoken to great effect. “The wonderful thing about first impressions is that they change” prefaces a waltzy “Nine O’Clock” (Take Me Along) followed by a rich, aptly besotted “On the Street Where You Live” (My Fair Lady). “I Don’t Think I’ll End It All Today” (Jamaica) arrives with fair accent, engaging gestures, and dancey demeanor.
The show’s Marriage Medley slyly employs a familiar wedding theme from Company as a red herring, bridging numbers from other musicals. In part: “I’m Getting Married in the Morning” (My Fair Lady) is a wry dirge; Harnar’s reoccurring “Don’t Marry Me” (Flower Drum Song) emerges sophisticated, insouciant; “One Hand, One Heart” (West Side Story) contains a sob which seems new to this artist. Rybeck ably duets. Remember, he can sing. “As the Act I curtain falls, we find our hero contemplating the wisdom of his dreams.” Hands at his sides, ostensibly holding it together, Harnar showcases finesse while Rybeck’s arrangement shimmers light on selected passages.
Act II opens with a Political Medley featuring such as: “Little Tin Box” (Fiorello) during which Rybeck plays the prosecutor and Harnar the witnesses, several with New Yawk accents. This ends with a jaunty, ersatz soft shoe. And the acerbic hoedown “The Country’s in the Very Best of Hands” (L’il Abner) which sounds disturbingly current. (Why is no one doing a cabaret show of Broadway political songs?)
We then revisit “our troubled lovers.” “I Say Hello” (Destry Rides Again) brims with entreaty; “Long Before I Knew You” (Bells Are Ringing) is palpably warm, “Look Who’s In Love” (Redhead) lands surprised. Before the coda of this section, we hear Harnar’s Harold Hill tell partner-in-crime Marcellus that he can’t run away even if it means being caught. In love with Marian the Librarian,“… for the first time in my life, I got myfootcaught in the door…” (‘Inspired use of a line.). Four bars of “Till There Was You” (The Music Man) adds a cursive flourish. Always a talented balladeer, the vocalist brings sincerity to songs that might be merely sentimental in other’s hands.
A moving “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” (The Sound of Music) with unexpectedly entrancing piano serves as encore. Harnar is tender, not stressed. The song appears heady in a different, more affecting way. Much of the room tears up. Bravo!
This extraordinary show unfortunately has no future dates.
Photos by Steve Friedman
New York Cabaret’s Greatest Hits presents Jeff Harnar sings The 1959 Broadway Songbook First engagement at The Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel 1991 Recorded live on Original Cast Records 1992 Jeff Harnar-Vocals Alex Rybeck- MD/Piano & Vocals Sara Louise Lazarus- Director The Metropolitan Room 34 West 22nd Street August 13, 2016 Venue Calendar
Mama Morton’s been sprung. After years of brightening stages in Kander and Ebb’s Chicago, Carol Woods returns to cabaret with Ain’t We Got Fun – The Richard Whiting Songbook. A tribute to his daughter, friend and mentor, Margaret Whiting, the show features Hubert “Tex” Arnold, Margaret’s Musical Director of over 23 years. Woods doesn’t do things in half-way measures.
“Margaret, you’re humming along, and, by the way, how did you like the song?” comes from a lovely piece of special material written for the iconic vocalist. Words ostensibly spoken by her daddy preface “My Ideal” the first song Margaret ever recorded, her first gold record. (Music credit shared with Newell Chase/lyrics Leo Robin.) Woods appears to be full of ingénue hope, palms open and extend as if welcoming. Latin-tinted drums rob a bit of the sweetness, but we believe ever word.
“Can’t Teach My Old Heart New Tricks” (lyric- Johnny Mercer) is more like a haunting than memory. By the time the arrangement slows to a Gershwinish coda, we’re as unmoored as the performer…but not for long.
“Sittin’ On the Curbstone Blues” erupts in feisty, red hot mama mode punctuated by hand gestures. There’s a fresh chicken fried/I can smell it outside/But it don’t mean a thing to me…complains an errant, locked-out lover. Bright and wry, Woods vocally shrugs, there’s lots of fish in the sea. (Lyric by and music credit shared with Haven Gillespie and Seymour Simons) This artist has known Margaret’s daughter, Debbie Whiting since she was three and distinctly remembers her wailing for fried chicken. A coincidence?
In similar vein, from the distaff side, “Somebody’s Wrong” is a vexed, hip-swingin’ honky-tonk shuffle… Nobody brings candy and things/I’m just nothing to no one it seems…how is this possible she seems to say…the world owes me a lovin’…Just for a moment, Woods assumes a Mae West stance. Don’t they know what they’re missin’?! Somebody’s wra-h-ho-ho-hong! She’s got this! The story-song is ably served by well honed acting chops. (Lyric-Raymond B. Egan/Henry I Marshall)
Arnold tells us that one day, in a stack of old writing by her grandfather, “the keeper of the Whiting flame” (Debbie) found a song called “A Day Away From Town” (lyric-Gus Kahn). The number, in Richard’s handwriting, was so provisional, there were no chord changes. Nor was it copywritten. Arnold filled in the blanks (“melody harmonized by”) and Woods was the first to record it. The vocalist starts low and slopes up as if seeking open spaces. It’s an easy sway, a deft soft-shoe, skylarking.
A second illuminating story reveals that lyrics for “She’s Funny That Way” – I Got a Woman Crazy for Me were originally a love letter left by Richard for his wife when he was called to Hollywood. Mrs. Whiting asked composer Neil Moret to write music and one of the great ballads was born. Woods sings it with gratitude, surprise and soul. A beautiful song just got more beautiful. Whiting, who clearly might’ve written lyrics too, penned such Hollywood classics as “On the Good ship Lollipop” and “Hooray for Hollywood.”
“Too Marvelous For Words” (lyric-Johnny Mercer) with bass vertebrae and exuberant piano and “Beyond the Blue Horizon” (music credit shared with W. Frank Harling/ lyric- Leo Robin) swung with syncopated beat and happy anticipation bring up the mood. It’s a rendition of 1928’s “Ain’t We Got Fun”, however, that carries us bopping out into the night. Woods is an evangelist for cheer, so full of light, the room resonates with optimism against all odds. (lyric/music credit shared with Raymond B. Egan/Gus Kahn)
Though patter could use a little work, this is an extremely entertaining show. Woods delivers genuine vulnerability and carefree pleasure as well as she does husky-edged lock n’build. Scott Coulter’s Direction is deft.
Good to have you back.
Richard Whiting was a multifaceted composer of songs for vaudeville, records, and films. There are eras during which you can’t musically turn around without brushing against one of his fine tunes.
Photos by Maryann Lopinto
Opening: Carol Woods, Saadi Zain
Carol Woods: Ain’t We Got Fun- The Richard Whiting Songbook
Directed by Scott Coulter
Hubert “Tex” Arnold- MD/Piano
Saadi Zain-Bass, Steve Singer-Drums The Metropolitan Room
34 West 22nd Street NEXT: August 22 & August 29, 2016
A Night at the Troubadour: Presenting Elton John and David Ackles brings together vocalist Stacy Sullivan, Director/Arranger Mark Nadler and MD/Pianist Yasuhiko Fukuoka whose collective talent, passion, and creativity are flat out extraordinary.
August 25, 1970: a young, British, writer/performer named Elton John was scheduled to make his American debut opening for established writer/performer David Ackles at the Troubadour rock club in West Los Angeles. Ackles, Stacy Sullivan tells us, turned to his wife and said, “I hope this kid’s good.” At the last minute, record executives switched the order. John listened from offstage. Like Elvis Costello and Phil Collins, he was an ardent admirer and champion of Ackles. Who?!
David Ackles was a child actor, literature and film major before he pursued his dream of songwriting. As the dark, literate material he wrote for others never seemed to fit, it was suggested that like popular singer/songwriters of the time, he perform his own work. The artist was never comfortable touring. With only four albums issued in an abbreviated life (he died of cancer at 62), Ackles nonetheless made a lasting impression on other musicians.
Twenty-four years after that night at the Troubadour, Stacy Sullivan was cast in a musical written by David Ackles. They became close friends. She sang at his funeral. A heartfelt note from Bernie Taupin (John’s lyricist) read aloud suddenly alerted her to a musical past the deceased had never mentioned.
This show, clearly a labor of love, may have been gestating ever since. Sullivan introduces, illuminates and appreciates Ackles; establishes dominion over iconoclastic, often musically difficult material, and excavates personal emotions. Selected numbers by Elton John/Bernie Taupin are included to fine effect.
The piece is bookended by “Your Song” (John/Taupin). When initially paired with Ackles’ “Be My Friend,” the entire room leans in to Sullivan’s entreaty. Next, is “Everybody Has a Story” which illustrates the humanity and perception of its writer: Everybody has a story/Everybody has a tale to tell/Lies spoken, hearts broken, Lost in Hell…All you have to do is listen …It’s a one act play musically influenced by Brecht and Weill. The vocalist, an actress, is at one point down on her haunches earnestly addressing a woman up front.
“American Gothic” tells the tale of a poor farmer’s wife who craves more than her narrow existence. The story-song also evinces Weimar roots. A moment of wry directorial humor is delicious. As she begins “Down River,” Sullivan puts her hands in her pockets, cowed, serious, awkward, proud. She’s a man just released from prison meeting the girlfriend who never wrote. Piano chords support a battleworn vocal, rich with unspoken forbearing. Eyes look ahead seeing nothing. Sullivan inhabits the character’s ache.
“I’ve Been Loved,” a gentle, hurdy-gurdy melody evoking old people whose memories sustain them and “House Above The Strand,” (boardwalk along the California Ocean), a tender lyric including humming and a proposal, offer the illusion of lighter fare. The latter, it seems, could have been written for Sullivan’s first year of marriage. We watch her see it again with a heart that appears to visibly expand.
Three tandem numbers show particular musical acuity. “Laissez-Faire” (Ackles) and “Levon” (John/Taupin) are spat out in resigned outrage, then become a prayer against ugly odds. Entwined renditions are powerful, moving. Sullivan’s husky contralto is enveloped by darkness even when backed by up-tempo rhythm. Piano is insidious, inescapable, haunting. The singer is palpably shaken, her last line exhaled.
Ackles’ “Your Face, Your Smile,” initially heard by Sullivan at his memorial, became the first song she ever recorded. It’s a necessary goodbye wrenched from the depths of despair and lands with visceral effect. Barely pausing, “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me” (John/ Taupin) begins with spoken lyric : “I can’t light no more of your darkness/All my pictures seem to fade to black and white…” Delicate piano tiptoes. This version is measured, transfixing, it’s howl withheld. You can hear a pin drop.
In order to experience as close to firsthand experience as possible, we hear a recorded excerpt from “Love’s Enough” with Ackles singing. Slightly sandy, deep and expressive, it’s the kind of voice in which one wants to wrap oneself. Sullivan then comes in fervent but quiet with “Your Song.” The moment shimmers.
To my mind only “Rocket Man”, paired with Ackles “Road to Cairo” (Cairo, Indiana), emerges excessive – as if evangelical testimony.
Yasuhiko Fukuoka, Stacy Sullivan, Mark Nadler
MD/Pianist Yasuhiko Fukuoka is equally adept at controlled detonation, enthralling pathos, and deft sensitivity. His symbiotic attention to the needs of an actress in thrall is expert.
Director/Arranger Mark Nadler has the cultural acumen to mine every bit of subtext. His extensive musical vocabulary offers nuanced underpinning even when emphatic. Nadler channels Sullivan’s focus into theatrical performance without gratuitous gestures. We believe every gutsy embodiment. The show is well paced and thoroughly engaging.
Dialogue is revealing, beautifully integrated, and often intimate. The artist’s signature warmth overflows. This is a brave piece, an achievement. Stacy Sullivan’s unconditional investment and muscular performance is one for the books. She excels as a keeper of the flame. Brava!
New York Cabaret’s Greatest Hits series continued with its 10th presentation at New York’s Metropolitan Room Monday night, a revival of Barbara Porteus 2013 show, Up On the Roof. Spanning 40 years of pop, it also includes one country and a couple of jazz-tinted interpretations.
Like the original version, Porteus is here accompanied by three guitars – no piano: Musical Director/Arranger/Lead Guitar-Jack Cavari, Larry Saltzman, and Zev Katz. Though the musicians are first rate, only a few numbers successfully lend themselves to this choice.
Were one to select the most defining quality of Porteus’s performance, it might be the artist’s ability to put her whole self into a song without ever straining a vocal, unnecessarily raising volume, or becoming fussy. Nor does delivery wobble. Phrasing is smooth, often honeyed. Octave changes are fluid and subtle.
While the show’s title song (by Carole King) is pretty, to my mind, except for a romantic bossa nova rendition of Melody Gardot’s “If the Stars Were Mine,” the show doesn’t kick in until after a lengthy Beatles medley comprised of song snippets, most of which sound thin.
“Unwell” (Matchbox Twenty/Rob Thomas), “Twisted” (Wardell Gray/Annie Ross), and “Help Me” (Joni Mitchell) create a kind of contemporary, crazy suite. Though less overt expression would serve, (rolling eyes and draping oneself leads to diminishing returns), jazz undulations are skillfully handled. Vocally difficult material arrives sensitive and pristine.
Barbara Porteus, Larry Saltzman
“Someone Like You” (Adele/Dan Wilson), a song where a woman tells her ex she can’t let go, is theatrically adept. Here, we empathize with the singer. Whether this has personal meaning or no, the artist makes it seem as if it does.
One of the best musical arrangements emerges with John Mayer/Pino Palladfino’s “Stop This Train.” Buoyed by sweetly percussive country rhythm, Porteus’s gravitas is filled with yearning. One can close one’s eyes, reflect, and ride. Stop this train/I want to get off and go home again/I can’t take the speed it’s moving in/I know I can’t/But, honestly, won’t someone stop this train?…
We finish with a quotation from the film Monkey Business, “You’re only old when you forget to be young.” Though the show’s “recollection of her youth through adulthood,” drops its subject early on, the aphorism aptly bookends. “The Secret of Life” (James Taylor) is simply lovely.
Photos by Stephen Hanks Opening left to right: Barbara Porteus, Larry Saltzman, Jack Cavari, Zev Katz
Next Up for New York Cabaret’s Greatest Hits: Maureen Taylor: Taylor Made-Bob Merrill- July 13 7:00 The Metropolitan Room 34 West 22nd Street Metropolitan Room Calendar
Franz Bloem is a Dutchman with curiosity and without pretense. He came to cabaret relatively late in his life. As a young man he drove in a rattletrap car from Holland to India and Nepal where he found an interest in Buddhism. Speaking English, French, Dutch, German and Yiddish enabled him to earn his living as a tour leader for travelers – first in New York and later in dozens of other countries. His travelers encouraged him to serenade them in venues where they stayed – often in fine hotels where he would be supported by an orchestra. His singing brought him unanticipated joy and, as best I can tell, he has abandoned the tourism trade for the performing life. Bloem performs with some frequency in Holland and New York and has built something of a following in Southeast Asia; indeed he boasts among his home towns, ChiangMai, Thailand, as well as New York, New York.
Bloem is a fan and proponent of Charles Aznavour, and sings in a style reminiscent of Aznavour and Brel – with an apparent tremolo and all emotions worn on his sleeve. I started a skeptic, given the overt sentimentality of some of the material – “You Never Walk Alone” (O. Hammerstein II and R. Rodgers), “Help is on the Way” (D. Friedman), “Non Rien de Rien” (C. Dumont, M. Vauclaire), “What’ll I Do” (I. Berlin)) – but half way through the show I was won over. Despite a history spotted with life’s occasional setbacks, Bloem voices appreciation for all that he has lived through and for all the people he has encountered along the way. Indeed, on this warm, Memorial Day eve, he invited the entire audience to return with him to his West Village apartment for cocktails in the garden following the show, repeating his address to be sure all who wished to do so would attend. The cabaret community at least will understand that ‘he is who he is, and he makes no excuses.’ And for this occasionally jaded New Yorker, he was both exotic and charming.
In addition to a sonorous voice and emotional sincerity, Bloem brought to the stage his persona of Maxime in an elegant black gown with a blood red, feather boa. Maxime sang “Falling in Love Again” (F. Hollander and S. Lerner) and “What Makes a Man a Man” (C. Aznavour). There was no uncomfortable excess about Maxime and, while there was some laughter upon her initial appearance, for the most part the laughter was with her rather than at her.
Bloem also displayed a sense of humor and, while eschewing political commentary, appropriately invoked our current state of confusion and disarray when singing “Galaxy” (E. Idle and J. Du Prez, but known, if at all, as originating with Monty Python). For those less familiar with the lyric, it concludes with:
So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure How amazingly unlikely is your birth, And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space ‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth.
Bloem greeted most patrons before the show, chatted with those stage-side during the show and displayed a general concern that all patrons should be enjoying themselves. It was perhaps a bit too much fussing for some but sat comfortably on Bloem’s shoulders, wholly consistent with the tenor of the evening. The show was rewarding musically, emotionally and philosophically; I found it wholly engaging.