Thursday, October 18, 2007

Stage Left Podcast, 18 October 2007

Reviewed: Marilyn Maye's appeatance at The Cabaret at Savor in St. Louis October 17 - 21, 2007. You can hear a podcast version of it here. A shorter version was broadcast on KDHX-FM in St. Louis.

Here's the text of the review:

Following one of Marilyn Maye's dozens of appearances on The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson turned to the audience and said "that, young singers, is the way it's done." As she's demonstrating this week at Savor, that's still the way it's done. And it's not just young singers who might want to take notes

rom the moment she hit the stage - with an upbeat medley of "The Song is You" and "I Hear Music" - until she exited ninety minutes later with an exuberant reading of Jerry Herman's "It's Today", Ms. Maye had the opening night crowd in the palm of her hand. Setting up immediate and honest communication with the audience is an essential skill for the cabaret performer. It's a skill she has in abundance, as her long and successful career clearly indicates. Maye's boundless energy and obvious delight in her material, in combination with her cheerful, off-the-cuff repartee, established an immediate bond with those of us on the other side of the spotlight.

How solid is that bond? Well, let's put it this way: how many cabaret singers could put Kander and Ebb's "Cabaret" right in the middle of the act and not have it come across and obvious and hackneyed? Ms. Maye did it and we all loved it. Case closed.

As you might gather from what I've just said, Marilyn Maye's musical tastes would appear to run mainly to American songbook standards. Her current show, for example, features fine performances of classics such as Rogers and Hart's "Mountain Greenery" (in a version so jazzed up that I failed to recognize the verse at first), "Get Happy", and "Come Rain or Come Shine". There's also a solid medley of tunes by the man who gave Ms. Maye her big national break, the late, great Steve Allen, including "When I'm in Love, "I Love You Today" and, of course, "This Could be the Start of Something Big". The latter is probably the best known of the literally thousands of songs produced by the multi-talented musician, actor and comic.

Ms. Maye is also a great admirer of the late Ray Charles, however, so for the last ten minutes (or thereabouts) of the evening she breaks away from cabaret standards to deliver an inspired eight-song set of the late R&B singer's hits, including "Born to Lose", "Cryin' Time", "You Don't Know Me" and a version of "Hallelujah I Love Her So" with new lyrics that turns the song into an unabashed valentine to Charles. The fact that her Maye Sings Ray CD was on sale afterwards, while hardly coincidental, was welcome. I bought a copy, anyway.

Accompanying Ms. Maye and, in fact, acting as equal partners in the act are Billy Stritch and His Trio - Stritch on piano and vocals with Andy Davis on bass and Jim Ekloff on drums. Her lively interaction with all three is great fun to watch. Stritch and company get to shine in a set of their own as well - a tribute to the late Mel Torme featuring a swinging run through Porter's "Just One of Those Things" combined with the film classic"Green Dolphin Street".

The bottom line is that Marilyn Maye puts on one hell of an entertaining show. Her approach to cabaret is very much in the old school, "knock ‘em dead" style with a strong East coast jazz feel - markedly different from the more intimately personal style favored by many younger masters of the art. It serves as a reminder that there's plenty of room under the cabaret tent for a variety of approaches. The only sine qua non is playing straight with the audience - and that Marilyn Maye certainly does.

The demand for tickets has been big and The Flim Flam Room at Savor is small, so you'd be well advised to reserve seats in advance by calling 314-531-0220 or on line at . Marilyn Maye will be knocking ‘em dead through Sunday, October 21st [2007] at Savor, 4356 Lindell in the Central West End.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Stage Left Podcast, 15 October 2007

Interviewed: Cabaret, musical theatre and film star Anne Kerry Ford, about her upcoming appearance November 1st through 4th, 2007, at The Cabaret at Savor in St. Louis, her love of a good lyric, and why TV and film acting might not be as much fun as you think. Those of you in St. Louis can order tickets for the Savor show by calling 314-531-0220 or going to

Friday, October 05, 2007

Leaders of the Pack

[This is my review of The Rat Pack Live at the Sands for KDHX-FM in St. Louis]

The theatrical subgenre of celebrity impersonation has always been an odd duck. It's easy to do badly, damned difficult to do well, and gets the impersonator little respect in any case. In fact, duplicating a performer's on-stage persona in a way that will allow audience members to suspend disbelief and react as they would to the original is quite a challenge, especially when the performer in question is well represented on audio and film/video.

All of which brings us to The Rat Pack Live at the Sands. A massive hit in Great Britain for eight years now (where it's know as The Rat Pack Live from Las Vegas), the show takes celebrity impersonation to an entirely new level by reproducing a typical mid-1960s Las Vegas appearance by the ruling triumvirate of the Rat Pack: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. In order for the show to work, all three impersonations have to get over the disbelief suspension threshold and let us fool ourselves into reacting as we would to the original performers.

Happily for all concerned, the stars of this tour inhabit their roles so well that the resemblance is sometimes a bit eerie. Louis Hoover, a veteran of the London production, sounds so much like the middle-aged Sinatra that I'm not sure I could easily tell the difference with my eyes closed. Even with them open, he looks enough like the original to make that disbelief suspension easy. The same is true for the Sammy Davis, Jr. of David Hayes, who is also a London alumnus. He's got the voice and mannerisms down pat and is a dab hand at tap, even if he is a bit too tall for the role. Not surprisingly, both Hoover and Hayes have their own one-man shows based on impersonations of Sinatra and Davis. To quote Max Bialystok, "when you've got it, flaunt it, baby".

Nigel Casey doesn't sound all that much like the ‘60s-era Dean Martin - his voice is far too bright - but he captures Martin's trademark charm, breezy persona, and carefully choreographed Fake Drunk act to perfection. Of course, I'm something of an easy sell. I always found Martin the most entertaining of the triad. And, yes, Fake Drunk acts look painfully unenlightened these days, but there's no point in doing a show like this if you're going to try to make it conform to contemporary sensibilities.

Supporting the three stars - and contributing substantially to the success of the illusion - are a fifteen-piece big band conducted from the piano by Music Director Andy Rumble and a trio of talented performers billed as The Burelli Sisters (Claire Poyzer, Anna Carmichael, and Lucie Florentine) - a kind of combination Vegas showgirl chorus crossed with The Andrews Sisters. Their jazzy, close-harmony version of "It Don't Mean a Thing" is a highlight of the first act and their dancing enlivens the proceedings throughout the evening.

For those of us with the right set of chromosomes, their sexy costumes don't hurt, either.

That's not to say that the evening is a complete success. The inclusion of "New York, New York" near the end of the first act, complete with faux-Fosse choreography, is a curious anachronism and the closing, post-curtain call performance of "My Way", while it would have been a great moment for the real Sinatra, just seems a bit weird sung by an impersonator - especially when the announcer has just reminded us that we're seeing "Louis Hoover as Frank Sinatra". The (uncredited) announcer's organized crime jokes at the opening of each act also stuck me as a bit forced; maybe they're better in the original British.

Still, the bottom line on The Rat Pack Live at the Sands is that if you enjoy the work Frank, Sammy and Dean produced when they were alive, you'll probably be highly entertained by their doppelgangers on stage at the Fox. As the trio sings in Cahn and Van Husen's "Style" (from the classic Rat Pack film Robin and the Seven Hoods), "You've either got or you haven't got class. / How it draws the applause of the masses". These guys have definitely got it.

Be aware, however, that this is a fairly accurate reproduction of a period Vegas show, so there's plenty of adult humor throughout the evening. No, there aren't any words you can't say on the air, but sex and alcohol jokes are present in abundance, so it's not really a family event.

The Rat Pack Live at the Sands runs through October 14th [2007] at the Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand in Grand Center. Call 314-534-1678 for more information. As theatre it ain't much, but as an entertaining exercise in nostalgia, it's hard to beat.

Beautiful Dreamer

[This is my review of Jennifer Sheehan's appearance at The Cabaret at Savor for KDHX-FM in St. Louis]

The first time I saw Jennifer Sheehan on stage was almost exactly five years ago, when the then-teenager performed a short set at the end of an appearance by her mentor, legendary cabaret artist Andrea Marcovicci. At the time I commented publicly on her "winning renditions" of "The Way You Look Tonight" and "I Have Dreamed" and wondered privately whether or not I wasn't seeing a future cabaret star in the making.

Having seen her new solo show, This is What I Dreamed, at Savor this weekend [September 27 – 30, 2007] I need wonder no longer. Ms. Sheehan is clearly on track to be a major new player in the world of musical theatre in general and cabaret in particular. All the elements of a first-class cabaret act are there: an honest, unpretentious stage presence (and the resulting quick communication with the audience), a flexible, Julliard-trained voice, a smart choice of repertoire and a musical director – James Followell – who knows how to support and enhance a singer’s performance. It’s easy to see why she has already won awards from the Mabel Mercer Foundation and Glenn Miller Festival and is well on her way to making a name for herself in New York. The kid’s got talent, and she’s going to go far.

The first two-thirds of the Savor show was mostly a collection of favorites from the American Songbook, including a two numbers from Ms. Sheehan’s first theatrical love, West Side Story, and quick medley of Cole Porter songs that she first sang publicly at the age of nine when, by her own admission, she had no idea what lyrics like “I get no kick from Champagne” might actually mean. There was also a heartfelt performance of the Irving Kahal/Sammy Fain World War II classic “I’ll Be Seeing You”. Ms. Sheehan introduced the song by recalling her performance of it for Alzheimer’s patients, thereby giving the lyrics a contemporary poignancy and reminding us that it’s not just shooting wars that can cause us to lose loved ones.

It was, in short, a fairly conventional mix of material, but even here there were surprises, such as Sondheim’s rarely heard “I Remember Sky” (from the 1966 TV special Evening Primrose, where it was originally sung by Charmain Carr) and a very funny Leo Robin/Richard Whiting number -"I Wanna Go Places and Do Things" (from the 1929 film Close Harmony).

More surprises awaited us. Ms. Sheehan spent the last third of the program on songs by contemporary musical theatre composers, including Jason Robert Brown, John Bucchino, and Susan Werner. Memorable moments from this segment included Brown’s “Climbing Uphill” (a song from The Last Five Years about an audition from hell that drew laughs of recognition from the theatre folk in the audience - including yours truly), Werner’s “I Can’t Be New” (from her breakout 2004 album of the same name) and Bucchino’s lovely “Temporary”. This last one deals beautifully with the transitory nature of life and reminds us that the phrase “this too shall pass” applies to both the bitter and the sweet.

Ms. Sheehan’s performances clearly demonstrated that she can be comic, lyrical or sentimental as needed and with convincing sincerity and musical virtuosity. There were, perhaps, a few minor aspects of the show that could use a bit of tweaking. It’s probably not, for example, necessary to explain what “the American Songbook” means to most cabaret audiences and the (very) occasional stock theatrical gesture struck a false note, but these are the kinds of things that fall under the heading of what’s called “polishing” in the theatre – minor alterations to an already solid performance. Their relative unimportance is the reason for relegating them to this penultimate paragraph.

This is What I Dreamed will apparently be Jennifer Sheehan’s last St. Louis appearance for a while. By the time you read this, she’ll already be back in New York preparing for upcoming appearances at The Radio City Music Hall 75th Anniversary Christmas Spectacular and The Mabel Mercer Foundation's 2007 New York Cabaret Convention. Our loss is The Big Apple’s gain. For more information, visit her web site, . For more information on upcoming shows in Jim Dolan’s Cabaret at Savor series (still to come: Marilyn Maye and Anne Kerry Ford), see .