Sunday, April 29, 2007

Isn't it Romantic?

[Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano brought their cabaret show, A Little Romance to The Cabaret at Savor series in St. Louis April 26th through 29th, 2007. This is the text of my review for KDHX-FM.]

If memory serves, when Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano appeared at the Grand Center Cabaret series back in the fall of 2005, they struck me as being a pair of very talented performers who, while they shared the same program, had not quite jelled as a duo. They were both very strong, but the result, as I recall, was rather a mix of fire and ice (or chilled martini, at any rate).

Of course, at my age, memory doesn't always serve; sometimes it merely stands and waits. Still, when Comstock and Fasano took the tiny stage at the Savor cabaret series this weekend, it seemed to me that they were now, without a doubt, a Team. This wasn't an evening with Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano, it was a night out with the Comstock-Fasano Duo — and a richly rewarding night it was for lovers of American song.

The theme of the show this time is A Little Romance, and so the program is dedicated almost entirely to the pursuit of what Quentin Crisp once referred to as “the epidermal felicity of two featherless bipeds in desperate congress”. The mood ranges from the yearning of Billy Strayhorn's “No One Knows” and the Weill/Anderson classic “It Never Was You” (from 1938's Knickerbocker Holiday, Weill's second American show) to the unabashed celebration of promiscuity in Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh's “When in Rome”. The balance between ballads and up-tempo numbers is just right, and the selection nicely showcases the variety of the idea of romance from the serious to the sexy and from the sad to the sublime.

There's also a nice mix of familiar standards and new discoveries. Fasano notes that one of the joys of putting together a program like this is coming across a previously unknown gem of a song such as Jule Styne and “Yip” Harburg's lovely “That Something Extra Special” from Darling of the Day, a 1968 flop (31 performances) that starred Vincent Price as an artist who switches identities with his deceased “gentleman's gentleman” to escape the pressures of fame. The score is, I'm told, a warm and witty affair, and Fasano's performance certainly makes a strong case for it here, as she does for another rarity, the Alec Wilder/Fran Landesman collaboration “Photographs”.

Even some well-known songs get new lyrics here. “All I Need is the Girl” (from Gypsy, of course), for example, gets a female spin in the second chorus and Comstock provides a raft of new lyrics for Porter's classic “Let's Do It”. That's not exactly radical of course — everyone from Noel Coward to Garrison Keillor has had a whack at it — but this is the first time I've head the song used for political commentary. Comstock does it in such a droll and witty way, however, that only the most rabid neocon is likely to be offended.

The bulk of the evening, however, is given over to stylish and sensitive performances of songs that are familiar because they're such fine examples of the songwriter's art. That includes “As Long as I Live” and “My Shining Hour” — two classics by one of America's more under-appreciated composers, Harold Arlen — and a subtle rendition of “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top” by Fasano that concludes with a rather cinematic fade-out. It was also nice to hear “The Lady's in Love With You” — a Burton Lane/Frank Loesser collaboration introduced by Bob Hope and Shirley Ross in Some Like it Hot, a 1939 trifle that has, as far as I know, nothing to do with the 1959 hit of the same name.

Comstock's piano technique remains fluid and occasionally even witty in a sort of Chico Marx vein, and he and Fasano harmonize beautifully on “As Long as I Live”, as they do throughout the evening — even when they're not singing together. If their marriage is as solid a partnership as their act, there will be “Two for the Road” (to quote the final song in the program) for many years to come.

Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano will be bringing A Little Romance to the Flim-Flam Room at Savor, 4356 Lindell, through Sunday [April 29, 2007], after which they're off to Katonah (NY), Ann Arbor, and then back to The Big Apple for a Johnny Mercer tribute at Carnegie Hall. For information on the Savor show, call 314-531-0220 or visit For information on future peregrinations of the Comstock-Fasano Duo, visit or

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Stage Left Podcast, 23 April 2007

Interviewed: Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano about their upcoming appearance April 26th through 29th, 2007, at The Cabaret at Savor in St. Louis, their musical and romantic partnership, and the significance of Cecil B. DeMille. Those of you in St. Louis can order tickets for the Savor show by calling 314-531-0220 or going to

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Way Out West

[Paula West played The Cabaret at Savor April 19 - 22, 2007. This is the text of my review for KDHX-FM in St. Louis.]

It has been just about four and one-half years since Paula West brought her classy, jazzy and blues-inflected cabaret act to town. Back then she played the spacious and acoustically odd Grandel Theatre. This year it's the more intimate Flim-Flam Room, upstairs at the Savor St. Louis restaurant, and the new venue seems to suit her just fine.

When Ms. West appeared at the Grandel, I admired the way she combined the improvisatory spirit of jazz with the fidelity to the songwriter's intent that characterizes a good cabaret performance. I described her act then as “the best of both worlds”. It still is.

Although somewhat physically restricted by the small playing area at the Flim-Flam - the room was, after all, designed to host close-up magic, which it still does most weekends - West nevertheless connected quickly with the audience. She opened with a solid one-two punch of Vernon Duke and John Latouche's “Taking a Chance on Love” (from Cabin in the Sky, where Ethel Waters introduced it on Broadway) and Gershwin's “It Ain't Necessarily So” - the latter tremendously effective even if Ms. West did have to do both the call and response herself.

The song is an interesting choice, by the way. In Porgy and Bess, it's sung by Sportin' Life, the morally flexible hustler, as a sarcastic response to the hymn singing of Catfish Row's more devout residents. The song's point of view is decidedly male and, in my experience, female singers don't usually take it on. The fact that Ms. West makes it her own is an indication of her willingness to take chances with both song choices and interpretations.

Other examples of her willingness to strike out in new directions include a powerful rendition of Dylan's “Like a Rolling Stone”, the obscure “Man Wanted” by British composer and jazz critic Leonard Feather (another one premiered by Ethel Waters), and a surprisingly upbeat version of “The Bonnie Banks O' Loch Lomond” - a song which, is after all, about “the low road” of death. There's also Oscar Brown, Jr.'s wryly funny “The Snake”, about the folly of believing that love alone can change a snake's nature. It resonated strongly with the women in the audience; can't think why.

It was also a pleasure to hear a moving performance of Bert Williams' 1905 classic “Nobody”, along with a few words about that late, great African-American superstar. Largely forgotten today, Williams was, in the early years of this century, a performer of such immense popularity that, when Ziegfeld made him a Follies headliner in 1910, bigoted protests from some other Follies performers were silenced. Ziegfeld told the protesters that they could be replaced, but there was only one Bert Williams.

That's not to say that Paula West doesn't provide a full measure of familiar tunes, including Porter's “Don't Fence Me In”, Roger and Hart's “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” (including some extra lyrics that may not have been Hart's), Charlie Chaplin's classic “Smile” and “Thanks for the Memory”, Bob Hope's signature tune, first sung by him and Shirley Ross in The Big Broadcast of 1938. In every case, Ms. West puts her own unique spin on the song while still keeping true to the composer's and, more importantly, the lyricist's intent.

As she did in 2002, Paula West comes with a solid combo of jazz pros. This time around it's pianist/arranger George Mesterhazy and bassist Vicente Archer. West allows plenty of time for solo instrumental breaks in nearly every song, and Mesterhazy and Archer made the most of them. Mesterhazy is the flashier of the two, with impressive technique to spare, but Archer's subtle and intelligent performance deserves close attention as well. Their teamwork is especially impressive in the encore number “You Came a Long Way From St. Louis”, as they trade licks and the occasional quote from jazz classics such as Bobby Timmons' “Moanin'”.

The bottom line is that Paula West starts off the spring Cabaret at Savor season with ninety minutes of powerful, fasten-your-seat-belts song that will please jazz fans and traditional cabaret lovers alike. She'll be there through Sunday [April 22, 2007]. Tickets are available from You might also want to consider arriving early for the fixed-price dinner. Savor's excellent cuisine is a bit pricey, but worth every penny.

Those of you outside of St. Louis can catch her at The Jazz Standard in New York City May 17th through 20th, the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco (her home base) on June 15th, and at the prestigious Oak Room at Algonquin Hotel for four weeks, beginning in mid-October. Check out her web site for details. Her three CDs - Temptation (1995), Restless (1999) and Come What May (2002) - are also available on line from and other from merchants, both physical and virtual.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Stage Left Podcast, 18 April 2007

Interviewed: Jazz and cabaret artist Paula West, about her upcoming appearance April 19th through 22nd, 2007, at The Cabaret at Savor in St. Louis, her music, and her CDs. Those of you in St. Louis can order tickets for the Savor show by calling 314-531-0220 or going to

Monday, April 09, 2007

The Story of Her Life

[This is the text of my review for KDHX-FM of Sally Mayes' appearance at the Savoy Room Cabaret here in St. Louis.]

When the late 18th century English author Horace Walpole first coined the term “serendipity”, he meant it to refer to the knack for discovery, by accident and sagacity, of one thing while in pursuit of something different. Due to what may have been a copying error in the original Oxford English Dictionary (OED) entry, the word has since come to mean "the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident". Sagacity, somehow, failed to make the final cut.

I bring this up because the appearance of Sally Mayes as the closing act in the current Cabaret at the Savoy Room series is an instance of both notions of serendipity. Her show, The Story Hour, is a happy and unexpected discovery, and Mike Isaacson and company have shown great sagacity in engaging her when Marin Mazzie was forced to bow out. Both Walpole and the OED are thus satisfied.

So was the audience, judging by the response. Mayes combines solid musical skills and shrewd dramatic judgment with an effervescent, “down home” approach that, I expect, harks back to her childhood in the east Texas town of Livingston. She describes the place as “a hell-hole not to be believed”, but it seems to have added a dimension to her stage presence that performers raised in larger towns closer to the 20th century don't always possess. The result, in any case, is irresistible.

Originally performed and recorded live for Varese Sarabande back in 1999, The Story Hour is a surprising, enlightening and thoroughly entertaining evening of songs by writers who are, for the most part, well outside the usual Great American Songbook crowd, including Bruce Springsteen, Jim Steinman, Dar Williams, Christine Lavin and even Mayes herself. “This is an evening of story songs”, noted Mayes in her introduction. “Hopefully, some of them will make you laugh; some of them will make you cry. And who knows? Along the way we might even learn something.” They do, and I believe we did.

The Springsteen number is “Meeting Across the River”, a film noir-style slice of urban lowlife. It's an odd choice, given the strong thread of bathetic male bravado that runs through it, but Mayes made it work anyway. From Jim Steinman, we have “Heaven Can Wait”, an unusually lyrical moment from the 1977 Meat Loaf album Bat Out of Hell. The actual meaning of the lyrics is as elusive now as it was back then, but it's great to have them sung by some one who actually has the vocal chops to give them real expression.

Woman singer-songwriters aren't often represented on cabaret programs, so it was nice to hear two of the best represented on The Story Hour - Dar Williams and Christine Lavin. From Williams, there's “The Babysitter's Here”, a sweetly sentimental memory portrait of the 1960s'-hip sitter which, even if it didn't make any of us cry, clearly brought a lump to some throats.

Well, to mine, anyway.

Christine Lavin is represented by the delightful “Shopping Cart of Love: The Play”, a funny and truthful song/monologue combo from the 1990 Attainable Love album. This is great piece for a singing actress and Mayes performance is sheer perfection.

That's not to say that more traditional songwriters are ignored completely. There is, for example, a Frank Loesser song, but it's his little-known (to me, anyway) “Hamlet” from the 1949 musical murder mystery (!) film Red, Hot and Blue, where it served as a showpiece for Betty Hutton. Mayes and her music director Patrick Brady gave it a high-energy, close harmony treatment reminiscent of The Manhattan Transfer or, to be more historically accurate, the Andrews Sisters.

There's also a Burt Bacharach/Hal David number, “Anyone Who Had a Heart” (a Dionne Warwick hit from 1963), but it's ingeniously combined with the Leon Russell/Bonnie Bramlett chestnut “Superstar” - a song which, until I heard it in this context, I really thought I never wanted to encounter again. The fact that I actually liked it this time is a tribute both to Mayes' heartfelt interpretation and Brady's shrewd arrangement.

Brady, I should note, is more than just a skilled accompanist. He also provided solid backup vocals on several songs, and his arrangements are impressive. He and Mayes were an unstoppable team, even when the Sheldon's dysfunctional HVAC system threatened to wilt performers and audience alike.

In fact, the only criticism I can offer of the evening is that something in the sound system sometimes rendered lyrics incomprehensible, especially in rapid patter songs like “Hamlet” or very soft ballads like “Meeting Across the River”. Listening to these same numbers on the CD, every syllable was clear as a bell, so I'm inclined to blame some combination of the technology itself or Mayes' lack of familiarity with the hall rather than the performances themselves.

That said, Sally Mayes' The Story Hour brought the 2006 - 2007 Cabaret at the Savoy Room series to a brilliant conclusion. It also completes the circle that started last fall with Kitty Carlisle Hart's own “story hour”, reminding us that one of the things that makes us human beings unique is our irresistible desire to explain ourselves and our world by telling stories. At its best, that's what cabaret does, and what The Story Hour did.

For more information on the Savoy Room series, check out the web site. For more information on Sally Mayes, go to her agent's web site.

Hustle and Show

[The national tour of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels played the Fox Theatre in St. Louis March 27th through April 8th, 2007. This is text of my review of the show for KDHX-FM.]

As the popularity of the recent BBC TV series Hustle clearly demonstrates, just about everybody loves a good con story as long as no one gets seriously hurt and the plot twists play fair with the audience. So the musical stage version of the 1988 comedy caper film Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has a lot of good will going for it from the start. The fact that it retains that good will right to the end despite some missteps along the way demonstrates, once again, the timeless truth of the old theatrical axiom “always leave 'em laughing”.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Michael Caine-Steve Martin film (or the Marlon Brando-David Niven vehicle Bedtime Story on which it was based), Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is the tale of suave middle-aged con artist Lawrence Jameson, who makes his living bilking rich matrons on the Riviera, and his rivalry with Freddy Benson, a young, vulgar short-con man who ropes the unwilling Jameson into acting as his mentor. Quickly tiring of each other, they agree on showdown: they'll both try to dupe heiress Christine Colgate into parting with fifty grand. The loser has to leave the Riviera.

The resulting battle of wits generates the bulk of the show's humor and nearly all of its plot twists. Alas, it doesn't really get going until around an hour into the first act, by which time Dirty Rotten Scoundrels comes perilously close to wearing out its welcome.

Why? Well, there are, to begin with, too many songs that simply fill time without advancing the plot or illuminating character - including one number, “Oklahoma?”, that looks like an outtake from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (although it does get points for rhyming “Oklahoma” with “melanoma”). There's also too much of what struck me as overly broad (not to say crass) humor. And I'm someone who actually thinks The Three Stooges and Weird Al are funny.

As a result, by the time intermission came around, I was beginning to wonder if something more substantial than the cheap red wine available in the lobby might be called for.

Happily, Scoundrels redeems itself with a solid second act. The comic reverses, as Lawrence and Freddy try to cut each other out, are fast and furious, and while the ending might not be that surprising to fans of caper films, it's still dramatically and musically satisfying.

Composer and lyricist David Yazbeck, who earned Grammy and Tony awards for another film adaptation, The Full Monty, back in 2000, is at the top of his form here as well. His music is bright and appealing, with witty lyrics that are, unfortunately, sometimes incomprehensible due to the muddy amplified sound. Television veteran Jeffrey Lane wrote the book, which provides the required plot twists and is, despite an excessive reliance on cheap sight gags, generally quite funny - often hilarious, in fact, especially when it breaks down the “fourth wall” makes fun of theatrical conventions.

He and Yazbeck also have two of the most amusing program bios I've seen in some time. I wonder how many audience members have actually read them?

But I digress.

Tom Hewitt is delightfully debonair as Jameson, “oozing charm from every pore” like Zoltan Karpathy, but with considerably more class. D.B. Bonds is thoroughly believable as Benson, Jameson's crude, out-of-control opposite. The role calls for a strong physical comic and dancer, and Bonds fills the bill admirably.

Laura Marie Duncan is a terrific Christine Colgate, “The Soap Queen”, perfectly capturing all of the character's varied moods. Hollis Resnik brings an endearing wry charm (a la the great Elaine Stritch) to the role of Muriel Eubanks, an early convert to Jameson's “exiled prince” scam. Nicely matching her is Drew McVety as Jameson's accomplice Andre Thibault. The slowly enfolding romance between the two provides lovely moments of more low-key comedy to balance the maniacal hijinks generated by the Jameson-Benson rivalry.

Paige Pardy also deserves an honorable mention for her deliriously over the top cameo as Jolene, the Oklahoma oil heiress. It's a physically demanding bit and while I didn't find it all that funny, I recognize that my gripe is with the material itself rather than her admirable performance of it. Your mileage may vary.

Gregg Barnes' costumes and David Rockwell's fluid sets are a riot of tropical color and choreographer Jerry Mitchell, whose award-winning work includes La Cage aux Folles, Hairspray and The Full Monty, demonstrates his versatility again with variations on everything from the tango to a two-step. Indeed, the entire production looks and sounds appropriately bright and brassy. Superficial it may be, but then you don't go to a show like this expecting King Lear, after all.

The bottom line on Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is that it's a real treat for lovers of caper films and musical theatre who also have a high tolerance for the well-turned Cheap Laugh. And even those who are more attuned to (say) Bob and Ray than Moe, Larry and Curly will probably find much to admire, even if most of it won't show up until after intermission.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels ran through April 8th [2007] at the Fox Theatre in St. Louis. You find out when the show will be in your area at the official tour web site,