Friday, November 20, 2009

Woah, Nellie!

Nellie McKay is definitely not your mother’s cabaret performer. In my case, in fact, she’s more like my goddaughter’s cabaret performer. A charming, uninhibited singer/songwriter, Ms. McKay puts the “id” in idiosyncratic. Her show has an “I’m making this up as I go along” quality because, for the most part, that’s exactly what she’s doing. The show my wife and I saw on the second of her two nights at the Kranzberg Center here in St. Louis [November 19, 2009] was, so my elves tell me, very different from the one she did on the first.

In an older and more experienced performer, that might come across as contempt for the audience. Ms. McKay, however, is so genuine and unaffected, so enthusiastic about her material, and so willing to share that enthusiasm with us that – at least the night we saw her – everyone appeared willing to go along with the ride through her musical Fun House.

It helps that she has genuine talent. Her voice is a flexible and accurate jazz singer’s instrument which she employs to great effect in numbers like “A-Tisket a-Tasket” (where she seems to actually be channeling the late Ella Fitzgerald at times) and the Gershwin classic “Do Do Do”. She’s also a respectable pianist and is able to use a ukulele for something other than simple strummed chords. In Jobim’s “Meditation”, for example, her delicate touch turns the often-maligned instrument’s sound into delicate filigree for the Brazilian classic.

That song was one of several numbers drawn from Ms. McKay’s latest CD (and, in appropriately retro fashion, vinyl LP) Normal as Blueberry Pie – A Tribute to Doris Day. A great admirer of the legendary singer’s upbeat approach to life, Ms. McKay shares both her love of the Great American Songbook and her “communion with nature and animals, and common civility”. Not surprisingly, then, the evening included Day classics such as Bacharach’s “Send Me No Flowers” (from the 1964 film of the same name, her third with Rock Hudson) and “Sentimental Journey” (her first big hit with the Les Brown band in 1945) as well as some delightful McKay originals that demonstrated that shared love of animals.

I mean, really: how can you not love someone who could write pet-friendly numbers like Pounce” (“I’m gonna pounce, pounce, pounce [meow] like a pussy cat”) and “The Dog Song”, which comes complete with two pairs of pants.

[A slight pause while we reflect on the sheer cheapness of that joke.]

If the essence of cabaret is the revelation of the individual performer’s personality through music, I’d have to say that Ms. McKay’s show is essential cabaret. From the opening number – “The Very Thought of You” sung to percussionist Ben Bynum’s solo glockenspiel – to the jazzy final performance of “Crazy Rhythm”, her show was quintessentially Nellie McKay. It was, far as I could tell, a pure expression of who and what she is in all her eccentric, cheerful, self-effacing and often very funny glory – a reminder that she made her bones as a stand-up comic before getting visibility as a singer/songwriter.

Speaking of the talented Mr. Bynum, he deserves something of an accompanist’s Purple Heart for keeping up with Ms. McKay’s peripatetic peregrinations through the evening, including her attempt to lead the audience through “Young at Heart” (which only around six of us knew, as far as I could tell). True, she lost him completely during the last-minute “St. Louis” medley while working her way from Kerry Mills and Andrew Sterling’s “Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis” to “You Came a Long Way from St. Louis”, but by then there had been so much good-natured give and take between them that the confusion became just another part of the entertainment.

How long that approach to the art of cabaret will work for Ms. McKay is, I think, an unknown. Her impressive credentials not withstanding she is, in her late twenties, still in the early stages of what is likely to be a long career. A degree of giddiness that is acceptable and even pleasant in a young performer won’t necessarily work as well as that performer ages. It will be interesting to see where Ms. McKay’s unique style takes her in the coming years. I know I’ll be watching; you should as well.

To find out where Ms. McKay will be appearing next, surf on over to here official web site at nelliemckay.com or check out the unofficial fan pages at nelliemckay.org and nelliemckay.net. You can also find information there on her four albums, at least some of which I am now strongly tempted to buy.

The 2009 Cabaret St. Louis season at the Kranzberg Center closes December 9th through 12th with an appearance by Bill Charlap and Sandy Stewart. For details, call 314-534-1111 or visit the web site, cabaretstl.org.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Ecstatic Heights

“[T]he contributions of immigrants...can be seen in every aspect of our national life. There is no part of America that has not been touched by our immigrant background.” – John F. Kennedy, A Nation of Immigrants, 1963

From the Irish in the 1820s to the current wave of new arrivals from Africa, Latin America and the Middle East, immigrants have brightened and enriched American culture. We are, indeed, a nation of immigrants. In fact, it you go back far enough, we’re a world of immigrants - and have been since we started moving out of Africa millennia ago.

In the Heights – the dynamic and thoroughly entertaining new musical on view at the Fox through November 22, 2009 is the latest in a long line of Broadway hits that have reflected and celebrated the changing wave of cultures arriving on our shores. Granted, the show – which was born nearly a decade ago at Wesleyan University in Connecticut – features music and dance that are very contemporary, but it has roots that go back through Ragtime, West Side Story, Abie’s Irish Rose, and the comedies of Harrigan and Hart. Its 21st-century flash, in short, is firmly grounded in tradition.

Quiara Alegría Hudes’s book is solidly in the American mainstream with its celebration of family, star-crossed lovers, and conviction that anyone with what the Victorians called “pluck and luck” can make a difference in the world. Set in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood, In the Heights revolves, in classic musical theatre fashion, around a pair of love stories.

Usnavi, whose Dominican parents named him after the first boat they saw when they arrived in the USA (it read “U.S. Navy”), runs the local bodega. He dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic with his beloved Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood elder and his virtual grandmother, and of working up the nerve to date Vanessa, who works at the local salon. Meanwhile Benny, the black dispatcher at the cab company owned by Latin immigrants Kevin and Camila, carries a torch for their daughter Nina, whose own dream of a college education has been deferred – if not destroyed – by a failed first year at Stanford.

Also on hand are Sonny, Usnavi’s somewhat feckless younger cousin; salon owner and local gossip Daniela; Sonny’s friend and street artist Graffiti Pete; and Piragua Guy, waging commercial war on the Mister Softee truck with his pushcart of crushed-ice-and-syrup confections.

As the play’s story unfolds over a sweltering July 4th weekend the characters’ lives intertwine in funny and touching ways en route to the inevitable joyous finale celebrating home, heart and, above all, hope. Yes, that finale is based on a lucky break right out of Dickens but that, too, is part of the tradition.

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score, on the other hand, is a very cool and non-traditional mix of hip-hop, salsa, merengue and soul as well as more conventional pop and musical theatre sounds. It’s nicely matched by Thomas Kail’s fluid direction and Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography, which seamlessly blends African and Latin American moves with classic jazz dance. Like the neighborhood re-created in loving detail by Anna Louizos’s set and Paul Tazewell’s colorful costumes, In the Heights is almost constantly in motion.

All this is brought to life by a mostly young and entirely talented cast of 27 terrific performers - all of whom can sing, act and dance up a storm - headed by Kyle Beltran as Usnavi. He cleanly articulates the character’s rapid-fire rap narrative while convincingly conveying his winsome charm. Rogelio Douglas Jr. is a forceful and sympathetic Benny and Shaun Taylor-Corbett is all stoner charm as Sonny.

Daniel Bolero and Natalie Toro play off each other nicely as the embattled Kevin and Camila. Isabel Santiago is great fun as the opinionated Daniela, while Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer radiates not-quite-innocent sensuality as Usnavi’s unrequited lust object, Vanessa. Arielle Jacobs, whose varied credits include creation of the “eco-website” helphealteearth.com, is a winning Nina.

Rounding out the principals in fine style are Elise Santora, repeating her Broadway role as Abuela Claudia, and David Baida as Piragua Guy.

In the Heights is a dynamite piece of musical theatre the captures a unique place in space in time while still ringing changes on universal human needs and aspirations. Some of the humor is definitely on the adult side so you might want to leave small children at home, but on the whole it’s as uplifting a celebration of neighborhood and family values as you’re likely to find anywhere.

You might want to bone up on the story in advance, though, by watching some of the video excerpts on the official web site or the related Youtube channel; I found the Fox’s acoustics to be a real barrier to understanding all the lyrics. On the other hand, my “thirty something” goddaughter caught everything, so maybe it’s just my aging ears.

You’ll find In the Heights at the Fox through November 22nd. For ticket information, you may call 314-534-1111 or visit the web site: fabulousfox.com.

If In the Heights is the future of musical theatre, then that future looks like a rainbow. And who doesn’t like rainbows?

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Good Word(s)

Words! Words! I'm so sick of words! I get words all day through; First from him, now from you! Is that all you blighters can do? - Liza in My Fair Lady

That famous lyric of his not withstanding, the late Alan Jay Lerner was a great lover of words of all sorts. Indeed, at the beginning of what he calls “a disquisition on the genius and words of Alan Jay Lerner” (officially I Remember Him Well: The Songs of Alan Jay Lerner) Steve Ross notes that Mr. Lerner took an “almost sensual pleasure” in the English language. Given that Mr. Ross clearly does the same, you’d think that this combination of lyricist and performer would be a match made in Cabaret Heaven.

And, of course, you’d be right as the rain in Spain, except that this match was first made in January at The Oak Room in the Algonquin Hotel - which, I suppose, is close enough to Cabaret Heaven for rhetorical purposes.

The Kranzberg Center may not be as celestial as the Oak Room but it, too, was close enough to heaven when Mr. Ross brought his show there this past week (November 4 through 7, 2009). From the breezy rendition of “I’m on My Way” (from the 1951 near-hit Paint Your Wagon) to the charming closing medley of “Almost Like Being in Love” and “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” Mr. Ross had us all in the palm of his hand - a neat trick, since he was playing piano at the same time.

I have commented in the past on Mr. Ross’ uncanny ability to immediately connect with and completely charm his audience, so all I need say here is that nothing has changed since the last time he did that just over a year ago. He may need more memory aids than he once did, but then Mr. Ross is one of those performers who can even shuffle notes gracefully.

As is usually the case with a Steve Ross show, the evening is a well-chosen mix of the popular and obscure, spanning nearly all of Lerner’s forty-plus years as a lyricist. The obscure stuff includes songs from shows that are the chronological bookends for Lerner’s career: the charming ballad “My Last Love” from What’s Up? (1943 – his first collaboration with Fritz Loewe, with a plot that sounds like something out of an S.J. Perelman parody) and a trio of tunes from My Man Godfrey (1986, left uncompleted and unproduced at the time of Lerner’s death).

The Godfrey set was particularly welcome, including as it did both the ingratiating “Try Love” (which invokes the spirit of Cole Porter) and the enormously witty “I’ve Been Married” – as clever a demolition of the institution as you are likely to find outside of the work of Stephen Sondheim (“I have tied the wedding knot / Until the blood began to clot / For living life connubially / Isn’t any jubilee”).

You will not be surprised to learn that Mr. Lerner was married eight times.

Other delightful discoveries in the program included “I Never Met a Rose” from the 1974 film version of The Little Prince (a box office failure that has since gained a cult following), “Hurry! It’s Lovely Up Here” from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (“the only song I know of about encouraging plant growth”), and “It’s Time for a Love Song”, a touching lament for lost youth and romance from Carmelina, an unsuccessful 1975 collaboration with Burton Lane. As Mr. Ross notes, “there aren’t many songs of rue and regret.. in the canon of Lerner and Loewe. But Lerner and Lane – well, that’s something else.”

The bulk of the evening, of course, was taken up with Lerner’s many hits – especially the ones he wrote with his long-time partner Fritz Loewe for shows such as My Fair Lady, Camelot, and Brigadoon. As is typically the case, Mr. Ross put his own unique stamp on all of them, including an introspective performance of “If Ever I Would Leave You” that brings out a wistfulness long hidden by Robert Goulet and his many imitators (not to knock Mr. Goulet; as written, the character of Lancelot is not much given to wistfulness). He even managed the neat trick of turning one of the most famous duets in film history – “I Remember it Well” – into a solo by subtly shifting between characters and dropping an unnecessary verse. It’s a lovely idea; I might have to steal it.

Through it all, Steve Ross the singer is well served by Steve Ross the pianist and music director, with smart arrangements and the occasional flashy keyboard solo. Steve Ross the musical historian is also on hand with interesting biographical tidbits and anecdotes about Lerner and the famous names who were a part of his creative life. It’s a wonder the stage isn’t more crowded.

But seriously: Steve Ross will continue to offer his entertaining traversal of the work of Alan Jay Lerner at the Kranzberg Center through Saturday, November 7th. For ticket information, call 314-534-1111 or visit the Cabaret St. Louis web site at cabaretstl.org.

Next in the Cabaret St. Louis fall season: Nellie McKay on November 18th and 19th, followed by Bill Charlap and Sandy Stewart in December. The 2010 roster hasn’t been announced yet, but the featured artist for the annual Cabaret St. Louis fundraiser in February has: Broadway superstar Sutton Foster. Tickets will presumably be available soon; check the web site for details.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Of Mice and Men

Nature, that framed us of four elements Warring within our breasts for regiment, Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds. Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend The wondrous architecture of the world And measure every wand’ring planet’s course, Still climbing after knowledge infinite And always moving as the restless spheres, Wills us to wear ourselves and never rest Until we reach the ripest fruit of all, That perfect bliss and sole felicity, The sweet fruition of an earthly crown. - Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine the Great
Adrian Veidt: I did the right thing, didn’t I? It all worked out in the end. Doctor Manhattan: “In the end”? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends. - Alan Moore, Watchmen

The way in which a heroic figure turns tragic is, to some extent, analogous to the way in which a normal cell becomes cancerous. The hero falls when normal confidence gives way to hubris. The cell becomes cancerous when normal growth becomes uncontrolled. In both cases a healthy trait, when carried to extremes, becomes toxic.

And – to stretch the analogy past the breaking point – in both cases an admirable end is compromised by flawed means. Besides, as Doctor Manhattan cryptically notes – and as the final pages of Dr. Bob Clyman’s compelling drama Secret Order illustrate – nothing ever really ends.

Consider the case of William Shumway (Todd Lawson), the protagonist in this powerful opening to the Rep’s studio season. His intentions are beyond reproach – he wants to find a cure for cancer. The results of his research are promising enough to be published in a prestigious journal where they attract the attention of Dr. Robert Brock (Richmond Hoxie) at an equally prestigious cancer institute.

In short order, Shumway is elevated from University of Illinois professor to head of a state-of-the art lab in New York City. There he becomes the mentor of the brilliant, motor-mouthed graduate student Alice Curiton (Angela Lin) and the unintended nemesis of the ageing Dr. Saul Roth (Stan Lachow), whose budget is gutted to help fund Shumway’s more charismatic work. A presentation at a high-profile conference in Denver leads to even more attention, funding for his work begins to pour in, and Brock begins to make half-serious references to Sweden.

There’s just this one little problem with some of the lab mice.

You can probably lay out the rest of Secret Order’s plot yourself and you’d probably be right, although you might not anticipate the nature of the very Faustian bargain that’s offered in the final scene. But then, predictability is the essence of tragedy. It’s the inevitability of the fall that makes it so powerful. Melodrama is about plot. Tragedy is about character. And the well-drawn characters are what propel this show.

Dr. Clyman is a practicing clinical psychologist, so perhaps it’s not surprising that his script is filled with keen observations on the ways in which ambitious people can deceive themselves and others without ever consciously intending to do so. There’s also a deep understanding here of the malleability of human memory. Like Bohr and Heisenberg in Copenhagen, Shumway and Brock find themselves, towards the end of the play, groping towards but never truly finding exactly where and how they went wrong.

All this is wrapped up in dialog that sizzles with intelligence and energy. It’s literate without being ponderous and makes telling moral points without preaching. It rings true because it is true. This is a script that will almost certainly have a life locally beyond the premiere.

The Rep’s production is almost as good as the material. Risa Brainin’s direction is sharp and focused and the rotating flats on Mark Wilson’s set make the numerous scene changes lightning fast. Mr. Lawson beautifully captures Shumway’s arc from earnest achievement to self-delusion and Ms. Lin is utterly credible as his manic and devoted assistant. Mr. Hoxie, a few opening night line issue not withstanding, is a delight as the overbearing but not entirely oblivious Brock.

As Saul Roth, Mr. Lachow had problems that went beyond a few line flubs, alas. At least on opening night, he seemed to have not fully learned the role. As a result the play’s final scenes, which center on his character, fell somewhat flat. By the time you read this, however, he’ll have a few more performances behind him and may be more assured in the part.

The bottom line, in any case, is that Secret Order is an enthralling and timely seriocomic examination of the conflict between the objective discipline of science and the subjective world of the minds that practice it. It’s a strong opening for the studio season and belongs on the “must see” list of anyone looking for an evening at the theatre that will give them plenty to discuss over drinks afterwards and ponder for some time after that.

Secret Order runs through November 15th in the studio theatre at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. For more information, you may call 314-968-4925 or visit the web site at repstl.org.