Monday, April 28, 2008

New and Improved

Like the lyrics of several of her songs, the title of the show Susan Werner brought to The Cabaret at Savor this April 23rd through 26th [2008] - I Can't be New - is richly ironic. In fact, nearly everything she did was new, or at least novel - to say nothing of creative, smart, hip, devilishly clever and just downright entertaining. Howard Reich, chief critic of the Chicago Tribune, nailed it back in 2006 when called her “one of the most innovative songwriters working today.”

Due to accidents of history as much as anything else, the image of the singer/songwriter in the popular mind is strongly linked to artists who draw their inspiration primarily from the folk/old-time tradition. Think of July Collins or Phil Ochs in the 1960s or Nanci Griffith today. As anyone who has heard Spencer Day or Jessica Molaskey can attest, however, this image is far too limited. Werner started out making a name for herself on the folk circuit, and her songs certainly include elements of what's now called “traditional” music, but that's only one color in a palette that includes jazz - traditional and modern - torch songs, American Songbook standards and even some remnants of her classical conservatory training. I could have sworn I heard some very Brahmsian harmonies in her piano arrangements at one point.

Let's not beat around the bush here: Susan Werner writes really great songs. She writes the kind of songs that make people like me want to go out and buy copies of the sheet music so we can learn them. She writes songs that can be funny, sad, wry, world-weary, romantic, cynical, cheerfully upbeat and politically subversive - sometimes all at once.

She writes songs about religious stupidity (“Heaven So Small”), spiritual generosity (“Help Somebody”), love missed (“Don't I Know You”, a Billy Strayhorn homage), love found (“Philanthropy”) and her home town (“Give Me Chicago Any Day”).

She can even write a song - inspired by Alan Lightman's novel Einstein's Dreams - about the difference in the way time moves at the earth's core vs. at the top of a mountain. It sounds a bit like one of those delicious pastiches William Walton wrote for Façade, which ain't shabby.

Besides, anyone who can compose a number like “Let's Regret This in Advance” that rhymes “Holy Bible” with “wholly liable” and then combine it with an arrangement that includes both a plucked jazz cello (one of bassist Greg Holt's many fine contributions to the evening) and a spot-on Louis Armstrong impersonation is aces in my book.

That brings us to the subject of Susan Werner the cabaret performer. Towards the end of the evening, Ms. Warner joked that she was breaking so many Cabaret Rules that Savor might lose its license. In reality, she did everything a good cabaret performer should do. She took us on a musical journey and told us stories that were worth hearing. She enjoyed herself immensely and included all of us in the fun.

I can't emphasize that last point enough. From her first moments on stage, in which her cheerfully spontaneous scatting segued into “Baby, You're That Unread Book” (or words to that effect), it was obvious that Ms. Werner took a joy in performance that was positively infectious. Bassist Holt certainly caught the fever early on, cheerfully trading hot licks with her and generally acting like someone for whom this was not just another gig. Indeed, if there was anyone in the Flim Flam Room that night who wasn't completely caught up in the celebration, that person escaped my notice. The audience responded warmly and enthusiastically, even when the material got openly political. Good on Ms. Werner for including that and good on us for welcoming it.

To find out whether Susan Werner will be bringing her one-woman musical carnival to your town, check out her web site, You can also buy her CDs and (as my fellow singing actors will be happy to learn) two of her songbooks there. Ms. Werner is an artist whose work deserves to show up in programs other than her own.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

She'll Sing the Blues for You

[Anita Rosamond appeared at The Cabaret at Savor in St. Louis on April 11th and 12th, 2008. This is my review for KDHX-FM.]

Cabaret is such a diverse genre that I hesitate to make sweeping statements about it. I think, however, that I'm on safe ground with this one: when the best thing about the show is the harmonica player, something is probably a half bubble off center somewhere.

Granted, the harmonica player was Sandy Weltman, one of the true virtuosos of the instrument and a musician of impeccable taste, so it's difficult for him not to stand out. But the star of this first entry in The Cabaret at Savor's "Cabaret in Blue" series last Friday [April 11th, 2008] was supposed to be local singer/pianist Anita Rosamond. The fact that she was often upstaged, however unintentionally, by Weltman and her other sideman, guitarist Shaun Robinson, is an illustration of the importance of not violating the two Prime Directives of Solo Performance: know the room and know the audience.

The Flim-Flam Room at Savor has received much praise from performers and public alike for its retro-cool faux Egyptian décor (inspired by magician John Neville Maskelyne's famed Egyptian Hall in London), intimacy, and intelligent layout. Seating around 65 at small café tables of graduated height, the Flim-Flam provides a good view of the tiny stage from just about anywhere in the house. The audience at those tables comes prepared to focus on the performer rather than chatting amongst themselves - which the size of the place discourages in any event.

If you're going to play this room, you need to have a strong song list with lyrics worth hearing, an interesting line of between-song patter, and a consistent theme or point of view that will engage the audience from the top of the show. In short, you need a cabaret act. Unfortunately that's not what Ms. Rosamond has.

What she has is a lounge act. It was a very good and generally entertaining lounge act, especially when she came out from behind the piano, which effectively concealed her from most of the house. The songs - sixteen blues, R&B and rock standards on the order of "Blue Suede Shoes", "Walkin' in the Rain", "Sweet Home Chicago" and (of course) "The St. Louis Blues" - were as familiar and comfortable as an old shoe. Ms. Rosamond delivered them all in a consistently unbuttoned manner with an appropriately smoky voice that can soulful, silky or earthy as needed.

In fact she was, if anything, just a bit too consistent. Regardless of lyric content, there was a certain sameness to her performances that made Mr. Robinson and Mr. Weltman's impressive solo breaks a welcome change of pace. In a lounge or supper club, of course, this wouldn't be that much of an issue since the audience in those venues isn't as intensely focused on the entertainer.

Ms. Rosamond's frequent attempts to get the audience to sing along also seemed more appropriate for a noisier and less focused environment. It's a lot easier to get folks to join in if they're already chatting with their neighbors. At the Film-Flam, that kind of thing would be far too distracting - rather like turning your back on someone with whom you were having a conversation.

All this is a pity because Ms. Rosamond is clearly a very talented woman with good musical instincts and a joy in performing that is positively contagious. What she needs to do, if she wants to continue doing cabaret, is write some interesting patter that tells us more about the songs and what they mean to her and, perhaps, give more thought to the lyrics. A bit more variety in the song list wouldn't hurt either. With some work, she could have a solid show on her hands.

Anyone who has ever been mesmerized by Paula West (who returns to Savor May 14th through 17th) or Jessica Molaskey knows that singers with a blues and/or jazz background have much to contribute to the art of cabaret. Ms. Rosamond has the opportunity to make her mark there as well. Perhaps, to quote a familiar jazz lyric, this could be the start of something big. Time (to paraphrase another) is on her side.

The Cabaret at Savor's Cabaret in Blue series pauses for two entries in the main season - Susan Werner April 23rd through 26th and Jimmy Webb April 30th through May 2nd. It picks up again with Renee Smith on May 9th and 10th and concludes May 23rd and 24th with Uvee Hayes. At least, that's the way it looks as this is being written. Given producer Jim Dolan's dedication to expanding the series, the spring season could easily extend into the summer. Check out the web site, , for the current schedule.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Hostile Environment

Don't you just love it when someone lectures you on how you spend your leisure time? And don't you enjoy it even more when that someone does it with a smug, self-congratulatory attitude with a bit of name-calling on the side?

Neither do I.

And yet, that's exactly what a local actor did on a couple of the local theatre email lists this week. It seems that she attended a performance of Kathryn Blume's one-woman show The Boycott - which deals with issue of gobal warming, among other things - and was disappointed that the turnout wasn't higher.

She could have just let everyone know that it was a great show and that she wished more people had gotten to see it and let it go at that. Instead, she posted a long screed about how terrible it was that none of the local "tree-huggers" (calling us environmentalists wouldn't have been snotty enough, presumably) had attended this performance (how she knew that none of us had attended is unstated; perhaps a scrying devince was involved) and that she was ashamed of the entire local theatre community. She also managed to get in a wholly unrelated plug for her next show and stongly imply that her attendance was an indication of her own higher moral status.

Lest you think I'm exaggerating, you can see the entire post here.

My reaction to alll this? Maybe it was because I had just spent the last two hours entering theatrical events into the KDHX arts calendar database, but it seems to me that nobody owes anybody else any apologies or explanations for attending or not attending any particular theatrical event. There is a huge amount of theatre going on in town most weekends. It's physically impossible to see all of it.

Besides, going to the theatre is not a particularly moral or courageous act (at least not yet), so nobody gets any brownie (or is that greenie?) points for doing it in my book.

It also does nothing to address the very real and very pressing problems raised by The Boycott.

Concerned about pollution, pesticides, global warming, species extinction, and our national addition to rapidly dwindling stocks of fossil fuels, nearly all of which are under the control of tottering dictatorships? Fine. Then do something to make yourself more a part of the solution and less a part of the problem. Drive less and use a car that gets the best possible mileage and has the lowest possible emissions. Live close to where you work. Recycle. Do everything you can to make your house more energy-efficient (you'll even get a tax break for doing so). Buy organic food (Local Harvest Grocery here in St. Louis has a nice selection, and they're not alone). Vote for politicians whose fortunes aren't dependent on making the situation worse.

All of those things are more meaningful than attending The Boycott, no matter how good the show is.

Don't get me wrong here. I'm glad she liked the show. If she was persuaded by the message, so much the better. But, really, the chief value of a show like this is in changing minds and hearts. Attendance by those already committed to keeping the human race around for a while would be nice, but it doesn't really advance the cause. It's just be preaching to the choir. And there's surely more than enough preaching to go around these days.

Friday, April 04, 2008

King Cole

[This is my review for KDHX-FM of Easy to Love, Jeff Harnar's Cole Porter show at The Cabaret at Savor in St. Louis.]

Probably the only proposition riskier than a cabaret show featuring the work of a songwriter almost nobody knows is a show featuring the work of a songwriter almost everybody knows. Last month at Savor's Flim-Flam Room, Klea Blackhurst showed us how to do the former with panache, if not always with soul, in her Vernon Duke tribute. This month in the same venue, Jeff Harnar and Alex Rybeck are showing us how to do it with both in Easy to Love - The Words and Music of Cole Porter.

This is the third joint appearance by Mr. Harnar and Mr. Rybeck in our fair city, and I'm happy to report that they're just as delightful, deluxe and de-lovely as they were back then. With a golden, flexible voice and engaging manner, Mr. Harnar is perhaps the ideal cabaret performer. He made eye contact early and often. He knew exactly when to "go inside" and when to reach out and engage everyone. And he was able to find remarkable variety in a lyric even when, as in the ever-popular "Can-Can", that lyric is superficially nothing but witty virtuoso word play or, as in the rarely-heard "I'm Throwing a Ball Tonight", it's so loaded with now-dated contemporary references that you'd think it would need footnotes.

It also doesn't hurt that he's the epitome of suave. As my wife noted afterwards, every woman in the audience probably had a small swoon moment at some point during the evening.

As arranger, pianist and - during the witty "Friendship Medley" - vocalist, Mr. Rybeck demonstrated the consummate skill that earned him a MAC Award nomination last month. That medley, for example, cleverly wove together songs from High Society, DuBarry Was a Lady, Out of This World, and Anything Goes, while the earlier "I Am in Love Medley" did similar justice to numbers from Can-Can, Fifty Million Frenchmen, Something to Shout About, Let's Face It and the film version of Kiss Me, Kate. In Mr. Rybeck's immensely well-crafted arrangements, popular classics like "You Do Something to Me" and "You're the Top" were seamlessly linked with less familiar gems like "Ought to Be You" and "Let's Not Talk About Love" (rhymes from which would later surface in Tom Lehrer's "When You Are Old and Gray"). It's no wonder he's in demand by some of musical theatre and cabaret's brighter stars.

St. Louis' own Carl Caspersen turned the duo into a trio with hip and knowing work on the string bass, particularly in the opening of "What is This Thing Called Love?", where Mr. Harnar's voice softly joined Mr. Casperson's jazzy plucked bass line in a magical evocation of the song's wistful and elegiac lyric.

As is the case with any well-crafted cabaret evening, Easy to Love offered its share of unexpected treasures. There was, for example, "Little Skipper", a novelty number written originally for Jimmy Durante in Red, Hot and Blue! (1936). Diligent research turned up some of the patter the great "Schnozzola" inserted into the number back then, thereby allowing Mr. Harnar to do what struck me as a remarkably on-target recreation of the classic Durante style. It was also gratifying to hear the lovely "You Can Do No Wrong", one of the many neglected songs Porter did for Vincente Minnelli's 1948 swashbuckling send-up The Pirate.

The bottom line is that Easy to Love is - well - easy to love. The show runs through Saturday, April 5th, in the Flim-Flam room at Savor, 4356 Lindell in the Central West End. A three-course, fixed-price dinner is available prior to each show. For more information, you may call 314-531-0220 or go to on the web. If you love Cole Porter or just near-perfect cabaret, you won't want to miss it.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Times to Remember

[This is my review for KDHX-FM in St. Louis of KT Sullivan and Mark Nadler's Time After Time: Celebrating the American Songbook at the Cabaret in the Savoy Room.]

The title of KT Sullivan and Mark Nadler’s show at the Savoy Room this week - Time After Time: Celebrating the American Songbook – may seem a bit ambitious; that takes in a lot of territory, after all. As it turns out, however, it’s just Truth in Advertising. In the course of just over two hours, the duo covered – in whole or in part – around forty songs with music by the likes of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jule Styne, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, the Gershwins and Jimmy McHugh. Featured lyricists include Oscar Hammerstein, Dorothy Fields, Adolph Green, and Sammy Cahn.

Only Stephen Sondheim – who is, arguably, at the chronological end of the period usually covered by The American Songbook – was short-changed. He was represented as a lyricist in a set of songs from Gypsy, granted, but the only Sondheim composition on the program was “Old Friends” from Merrily We Roll Along. As if by way of compensation, Mr. Nadler and Ms. Sullivan did the Act I reprise of the song, in which friendly greetings quickly deteriorate into lyrical bickering and finally a literal shouting match that abruptly changes into the final chorus.

“Now there’s something you don’t see every day, Chauncy”, as they used to say on Rocky and Bullwinkle. Their timing was impeccable and the song came across beautifully.

The bulk of the evening consisted of material that will be familiar to any lover of musical theatre or cabaret. There was a generous helping of Cole Porter, for example, including the expected songs about Paris (“I Love Paris” and “You Don’t Know Paree”, ingeniously mingled with “After You, Who?” in French translation) and a set from Kiss Me, Kate (a show which would surely be on the ash heap of history now if it weren’t for the wonderful score). There was a brace of Richard Rodgers numbers about women (inspired by the composer’s numerous extra-marital dalliances) and a medley of Kern/Fields classics such as “Never Gonna Dance”, “Lovely to Look At” and “The Way You Look Tonight”. The Gershwins were represented by only one song – “‘S Wonderful” – but Mr. Nadler combined it with about a third of Rhapsody in Blue to create a virtuoso showpiece for voice and piano.

Indeed, Mr. Nadler’s formidable talents as pianist, singer and comic – to say nothing of his brilliance as an arranger - dominated the evening. He used Berlin’s “I Love a Piano”, for example, as a platform for a hilarious musical slapstick routine that seemed to be channeling Chico Marx by way of Jerry Lee Lewis and Bugs Bunny with a bit of Victor Borge thrown in for good measure. Ms. Sullivan, by contrast, often seemed to be a bit fragile, both physically and vocally, as though coping with an illness or injury. When she was fully present, however, she was a delight, especially in drolleries such as Porter’s “The Tale of the Oyster” (from Fifty Million Frenchmen) and Rodgers and Hart’s “To Keep My Love Alive” (written for Vivienne Segal the ill-fated 1943 revival of A Connecticut Yankee). Too, there is considerable affection between Ms. Sullivan and Mr. Nadler, which added extra depth to numbers like “Thanks for the Memory” and “Make Believe”.

On the whole, though, Time After Time felt more like warm-up for Mr. Nadler’s upcoming solo show in New York than the kind of team effort displayed in the duo’s Irving Berlin show that graced the Sheldon Concert Hall in 2004. Happily, Mr. Nadler had enough energy for an entire ensemble, let alone a duo, and the show brought the current Savoy Room series to a pleasant close. For information about upcoming shows in the series, visit the web site at .