But (a)live ?

March 16, 2010

Last night I saw Penny Fuller’s show, The War Between My States, at the Metropolitan Room.

On paper, this show was amazing.  You have a lovely performer who not only knows how to deliver a wide range of material, but she also exudes bucketfuls of charm and grace.  Gather a bunch of classy, classy songs that balance the familiar and the discoverable.  Use the conflicts between North and South in her background as an excuse for some really witty patter crafted by some of the best people working today.  And present it using two of the best musicians in New York.

But, oh, cabaret lives in real-life and not on the page.  And cabaret is hard.

 I have to admit that the initial wallop of Fuller’s stage presence, lithe in a shoulder-less cocktail dress, with frizzy blond hair (actually looking like Petula Clark’s better-proportioned American cousin) completely bowled me over during her first number.  I found myself thinking how interesting it was that Christine Ebersole has a loftier place in the cabaret hierarchy while other talents like this are around.  Although, I had to admit that I wanted to reposition where Fuller had the microphone by about 2 inches.

By the third number, it occurred to me that the way Fuller was performing was a little more epic than a 20-person Monday crowd at the Metropolitan Room warranted.  The director in me started to get concerned that she was treating the show as a higher-stake performance than she should.  The cynic in me said that even though she wasn’t booked in the Carlyle, she was determined to do her show at the Metropolitan Room so big that it would be heard four miles uptown.

And yet, there were some great performances of songs happening: a gloriously sensitive When the Wind Blows South; a pert You’d Better Love Me; a sensitive New York State of Mind. 

But also, the contrast of divorced parents, a Southern father living in the North and a Northern father living in the South (or vice-versa) as the basis for the show started to get a little thin.  During a tepid New York medley it occurred to me that the other 20 people in the room probably had stronger feelings about the city.  Oh, and there was the version of I’m Old Fashioned set to the accompaniment to Another Hundred People that sounded like a bad party trick.  (I refuse to believe that David Gaines, a pianist with taste and technique so tidy that he verges on the immaculately meticulous originated the idea, but he did amazing work in making it seem plausible.)

And then came that harbinger of cabaret doom.  Fuller had to ask Gaines what song came next.  While he was playing the intro to it.  The show spiraled downward from there.  Blues in the Night sung in a blue spotlight followed by a comic patter number That’s How I Love the Blues that required constant prompting from Gaines (the funniest moment in the song when Gaines prompted Fuller with line “like an actor loves his cues”); Fuller needing to be prompted on her patter by her director sitting in the audience and eventually resorting to grabbing her script from the piano and desperately leafing through it; Dixie* as an eleven o’clock number; Fuller looking defeated and getting into apology mode with the audience.  And the saddest part of this all was that glimpses of the performance, like her amazing version of Skyline, or her eventually-lovely reading of I’ve Got a Name showed what opportunities were wasted.

And speaking of wasted opportunities, the aspect of the evening that vexed me the most was the fact that she didn’t do either of her songs from Applause.  Yes, it was only one year of her career forty years ago.  But she has a genuine place in Broadway history for that role.  And frankly, the main reason I went to see her was with the hope/expectation of hearing One Hallowe’en.  And when you’ve introduced the song The Best Night of My Life on Broadway, how do you do anything else for an encore (even when it clearly wasn’t for anyone involved)?

Here’s her song line-up:

  • Where Do I Belong**
  • Anyplace I Hang My Hat is Home
  • When the Wind Blows South
  • You’d Better Love Me
  • New York State of Mind
  • NYC / My City / You Can Be a New Yorker, Too
  • I’m Old Fashioned
  • Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?
  • Sentimental Gentleman
  • Bewitched…
  • Forgotten Dreams**
  • Blues in the Night
  • That’s How Much I Love the Blues
  • Skyline
  • Dixie
  • I Got a Name
  • Encore: Whatever Time There Is

*This is fodder for a whole other post.  **Guessing at the titles

Cabaret in Connecticut…

August 4, 2008

Somehow, August seems to be National Cabaret Workshop month. Perry-Mansfield, the St. Louis Cabaret Conference, and Lina Koutrakos’s Summer in the City workshop take place later this month. And both The Cabaret Conference at Yale and the Eugene O’Neil Center had public performances from their cabaret workshops last weekend. DCCN member Bob Sacheli, who usually writes for the Dandyism site, generously shared his experience at the first set of shows from the O’Neil program:

In a weekend focused on young singers at the 2008 Cabaret Conference at the O’Neill Theatre Center, Penny Fuller and Ronnie Spector, two veterans from opposite sides of the music world, proved that there’s nothing more compelling than the voice of experience.

On Friday, August 1, Fuller unveiled her new show, “The War Between My States,” a musical autobiography that explored what she described as the “combo plate” of influences absorbed from an upbringing spent shuttling between parents in New York state and North Carolina. Drawing on songs from both Northern and Southern composers, she was alternately a Broadway baby and a Mason-Dixon valentine, as Mitchell Parish’s lyrics to “A Sentimental Gentleman From Georgia” put it. Working with musical director David Gaines, themes of wanderlust and nostalgia predominated in both classic material (“Anywhere I Hang My Hat Is Home,” “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?”) and less-frequently heard gems (the shimmering Yip Harburg/Harold Arlen “When the Wind Blows South,” “You’d Better Love Me [While You May]” from the Hugh Martin/Timothy Gray score to “High Spirits.”)

Fuller threads the songs with family stories and vivid imagery (the sparkle of the mica in the sidewalk outside Grand Central crystallized her childhood dream of New York as a city of possibilities), and the mix of narrative and song proves winning. She captured the emotional jangle of wised-up love with a “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” that left you wishing some savvy producer would build a “Pal Joey” around her, then later turned her penultimate song, a simply delivered “Dixie,” into a surprising ballad of loss.

Fuller’s Broadway years have given her a big-city sophistication that fits like a perfect black cocktail dress. Not many singers, though, can manage to make the musical clichés of moonlight, magnolias, and the lazy Mississippi seem fresh to modern ears. Fuller’s satisfying show proved that she’d literally been born to do just that.

On Saturday, the first of two Cabaret Fellows Showcases spotlighted seven young professionals. Kirsten Sergeant sunny openness made “Something’s Coming” an apt introduction for the evening. Lois Robbins, a firecracker in a slinky red dress, mined “Ballroom’s” other-woman’s anthem, “Fifty Percent,” for all its torchy worth. Patricia Geraghty moved from an intimately scaled version of “Remind Me” to the showcase’s biggest laugh-getter, a hymn to the sizzling delights of “Bacon” that had the audience eating out of her hand. Adam Alexander, the sole male among the ensemble, was the night’s clear standout, with “Too Close for Comfort” and “If I Sing” showing off both his strong voice and his leading-man presence. Kate Cooke, Josi Davis, and Elizabeth Whitney were also among the evening’s performers.

Saturday’s late-night offering was another autobiographical foray, this time from a legendary singer for whom cabaret is new territory. Like Penny Fuller, Ronnie Spector grew up wondering where she belonged. Her multiracial background (she was too light to be black, too dark to be white, and ignored by Hispanics, as she explains it) left her gazing longingly from her Spanish Harlem rooftop at the street-corner chic of the neighborhood girls who represented the late-50’s ideals of New York teen glamour. With her ear pressed to her grandmother’s Philco radio, she was transformed by the voice of Frankie Lymon, and in a few years little Veronica Bennett, who loved to sing with her sister and cousin, would herself be heard over that radio and become the symbol of a brand-new kind of pop glamour. “Beyond the Beehive” is Spector’s look back at her amazing career-and how she survived it.

From amateur contests at the Apollo to dancing at the white-hot center of the Manhattan’s celebrity universe, the Peppermint Lounge, the early years of the Ronettes (or as they were known then, Ronnie and the Relatives) were fueled by sheer energy, tight skirts, and liberal applications of Aqua Net. Spector (for whom hair still plays an integral role in her stage persona as she nears 65) recounts the “Dreamgirls”-like saga of her beginnings with a “Did this really happen to me?” sense of wonder. Radio personality Murray the K made the group part of his stable of teen performers, and the scene at “The Pep” gave way to local concerts, broadcast appearances, and record deals. But it was crazy-brilliant producer Phil Spector (or “my ex,” as she spits it out each time she refers to him) who would mold the Ronettes into an international girl-group sensation and whose possessiveness would eventually all but destroy Ronnie personally and professionally. For Phil, as we learn, the emphasis was clearly on the crazy.

There’s a rawness both in execution and emotion to Spector’s show at this early stage of development. She’s not yet fully comfortable in the narrative passages that make up half of the material, but her unvarnished vulnerability as a performer-and that little-girl speaking voice-make her instantly endearing. Whenever that unmistakable singing voice (still in great shape) takes over, she’s in full control of her powers and her audience. It’s a performance without a trace of self-indulgence or self-pity, and it packs a wallop.

Spector performs the trio’s iconic songs, including “Baby I Love You,” “I Can Hear Music,” “So Young,” “Paradise,” and “Do I Love You” throughout the act. In the biographical context, though, they take on a dimension beyond serving as signposts in the Ronettes’ career or a greatest-hits diversion from what turns out to be a sometimes-chilling life story. Instead, backed by music director Gabriella Ostrowska’s piano and vocals, Spector manages to simultaneously revel in the music’s pure, plaintive joy and underscore how unreachable those lyrical romantic ideals actually were – particularly for the woman whose voice gave them life.

“Beyond the Beehive” is a work in progress and with sharper direction, more focused dramaturgy, and more opportunities to polish its rougher edges it has the potential to be a one-of-a-kind cabaret experience. What I hope won’t get lost is the sheer bravery and emotional power of Ronnie Spector’s performance. From what she revealed to the show’s first audience, I have a feeling that’s something we may not need to worry about.

Robert Sacheli writes “The Passionate Spectator” column at Dandyism.net and is a member of the DC Cabaret Network.

Ron Squeri — “Haunted Heart” at the Duplex

January 28, 2008

OK, I’m prejudiced, but Ron’s show Haunted Heart at the Duplex tonight was a spectacular success.  I thought he sounded terrific, had a great selection of material, and a nice flow to the show.  Lina Koutrakos did a terrific job directing, paring some of the dialogue and getting the flow working.  Thomas Honeck did amazing work with the lighting — creating a roller disco at one point (take that Xanadu!). 

And David Gaines did yoeman work music directing.  For those of you who don’t know, Rick Jensen who did the arrangements for Ron’s CD had emergency surgery last week, and was unable to play the show as scheduled.  So David Gaines filled in at the last minute, and he and Ron did the show on 2 rehearsals — and sounded amazing!

A special thanks to everyone who came to the show!!!  It was so great to see so many people invest in Ron, coming from DC, New York, New Jersey, and points beyond. (DC cabaret artists extraordinaire Kathy Reilly and Emily Everson at left)

Thanks so much to Matt Howe for the photos!!!