Thursday, November 15, 2007

Frankly Speaking

[This is my review, for KDHX-FM, of Frankie Randall's appearance at The Cabaret at Savor, November 14th and 15th, 2007]

Lovers of Frank Sinatra have had a good fall locally. The Rat Pack Live at the Sands re-created Old Blue Eyes' 1960s Las Vegas shows at the Fox last month and this month Frankie Randall played two nights (November 14th and 15th, 2007) at the Flim Flam Room as part of the ever-expanding Cabaret at Savor Series.

The connection? Well, as Mr. Randall frequently reminded us, he was a friend and protégé of Sinatra’s and, in fact, was given many of the late singer’s charts just before his death. Most of the numbers on his relatively short program were closely associated with The Chairman of the Board and Randall’s approach to them is very much in the “Sands Hotel hipster” style that defined Sinatra’s middle age.

For fans of that style – and there were quite a few in the audience on the 14th – there was “a lot to like”, as they used to sing in the old cigarette commercial. Randall sailed through a sea of Sinatra hits from the 1950s and 1960s, including “Come Fly With Me”, “Where or When”, “Luck be a Lady”, and “The Best is Yet to Come” - a song so closely associated with Sinatra that its title is engraved on his tombstone. He did so without paying all that much attention to the lyrics – even forgetting some on occasion – but that, too, is consistent with Rat Pack-era Sinatra.

A singer more at home in a cabaret setting might make more of, for example, the typically bittersweet tone of Hoagy Carmichael’s “One Morning in May” or the desperate yearning of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, but that singer wouldn’t be Frankie Randall. Mr. Randall’s approach to his music isn’t one that I find particularly interesting, but it’s clearly the one his fans have come to expect and, at least for them, he clearly delivered.

That said, I’m afraid Mr. Randall has adopted some of the late Mr. Sinatra’s less salubrious performance habits, such as not bothering to rehearse. At one point, for example, he noted that he had spent a total of ten minutes with bassist Dave Troncoso – which made Troncoso’s smart and fluid playing all the more impressive. Troncoso is a seasoned jazz professional, and it showed.

Mr. Randall also had a tendency to play almost exclusively to the large group of local partisans who occupied the center of the house. It’s fine to acknowledge your fans, but a key lesson of Cabaret 101 is that you must do everything you can to include the entire audience in your performance. Otherwise you risk having some of them feel like guests at somebody else’s party.

Let me not leave you with the impression, by the way, that I have no regard for the old school, “knock ‘em dead” way of handling The American Songbook. As Marilyn Maye demonstrated so effectively just a few weeks ago in the same room, that approach can be mightily entertaining. The problem is simply that Mr. Randall’s performance style is far more suited to the casinos in which he usually appears (he has, after all, been inducted into the Casino Legends Hall of Fame) than it is to a classic cabaret venue like Savor’s Film Flam Room.

In any case, fans of Mr. Randall can keep up with his busy performance schedule at his web site, . Most of them are at casinos, so he should be in his element. Lovers of cabaret, meanwhile, can check out the upcoming acts in the Savor series at

Sunday, November 04, 2007

It's Wonderful, So They Say

[This is my review for KDHX-FM of Anne Kerry Ford's show Something Wonderful, which played the Cabaret at Savor in St. Louis November 1st through 4th, 2007.]

Anne Kerry Ford is a Ojai, California-based actress and cabaret artist whose Broadway credits include Annie, Threepenny Opera - that one with Sting in 2000 - and Jekyll and Hyde, opposite musical theatre veteran John Cullum. In collaboration with her husband, guitarist Robben Ford, and her musical director John Boswell, Anne Kerry Ford has produced three albums and in my view they're all winners.

When I aired the second of those discs - Something Wonderful: Songs of Sondheim and Hammerstein - on my radio show back in 1999, I described her performances as idiosyncratic and charming. Now that I've finally had a chance to see her do the show the gave birth to that CD here at Savor, I see no reason to revise that verdict.

The late Oscar Hammerstein II was both teacher and father figure to Stephen Sondheim. Ms. Ford's song selection, combined with her biographical tidbits on the two men, provides a fascinating and often enlightening view of their similarities and differences. Early in the program, for example, she pairs Hammerstein's "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" (music by Jerome Kern) with Sondheim's "Marry Me a Little" (cut from Company originally but restored in the latest revival), describing them as contrasting marriage proposals. I hadn't thought of them in quite that way, but she makes it work.

Memorable cabaret artists always bring their own unique styles to the songs they perform. In Ms. Ford's case, that means a combination of wide-eyed wonder, open sentiment and a heavy dose of impish humor. It also means that some songs get an unusual spin. The breathlessly lyrical reading of "Something's Coming" that opens the show is a good example. The song is usually an up-tempo number with lots of rhythmic drive, but while Ms. Ford's version has some of that, it's mostly gentler, with lots of rubato. It works but, like the quietly intense performance of "Being Alive" that precedes the obligatory encores, it's not what you'd expect.

Her selection of material has its share of surprises as well. The Sondheim selections are largely what you might expect - "Broadway Baby", "The Miller's Son", and "With So Little to Be Sure Of" (from Anyone Can Whistle, that brilliantly ambitious social satire that closed after nine performances) - but there's also a compelling "Move On" (from Sunday in the Park With George), which is usually not on a Sondheim "greatest hits" list.

The real obscurities, however, are to be found among the Hammerstein numbers - not surprising, given how prolific he was. In the case of "I'm One of God's Children" (from Ballyhoo of 1930, a show largely distinguished by W.C. Field's juggling, to judge from contemporary accounts), the obscurity may be deserved - the song is a certified clunker. Ms. Ford sends it up in style, though - specifically, the style of the late Jean Hagen in Singin' in the Rain.

She also gets plenty of laughs from another bit of Hammerstein arcana, "Vodka" (music by George Gershwin and Herbert Strothart, from a lavish 1925 operetta Song of the Flame), in which she manages the trick of singing just the right notes just a bit flat, a la Jo Stafford in her Darlene Edwards persona. Anybody can do that accidentally. It takes a singer with a good ear to do it deliberately for comic effect.

Ms. Ford is also on solid ground with more well known songs, including "If I Loved You" (easily one of the best love songs ever penned by anyone), "Oh What a Beautiful Mornin'", and "Mr. Snow". She also makes a very good case for the title tune, "Something Wonderful" from The King and I. It's a song I had rather disounted in the past, but her performance made me listen to it with fresh ears.

That, friends, is what cabaret is all about.

Cabaret is also about having a sympathetic and smart music director/arranger/pianist. John Boswell is all of that. There's a lot of ebb and flow to Ms. Ford's performances - the whole tempo rubato thing referred to above - and Mr. Boswell is with her every step of the way.

My only complaint - a very minor one - is that Ms. Ford had, at least on the night I saw her, a tendency to drop final consonants in some of the faster songs - "The Miller's Son" being a good example. Striking a balance between lyrical clarity and tonal beauty is ongoing technical challenge for any singing actor, of course, and from their response it's clear that the audience didn't see this as a problem in any case.

Anne Kerry Ford and John Boswell will be presenting Something Wonderful at the Flim Flam Room at Savor, 4356 Lindell, through Sunday [November 4th, 2007]. The evening is, in fact, something wonderful; no lover of cabaret should miss it. Call 314-531-0220 or visit to order tickets on line. You can also keep up with Ms. Ford's appearances elsewhere via her web site, .

Friday, November 02, 2007

Stage Left Podcast, 2 November 2007

Reviewed: The national tour of The Drowsy Chaperone, which plays the Fox Theatre in St. Louis October 30th thorugh November 11th, 2007 . You can hear a podcast version of it (complete with musical examples) here. A shorter version was broadcast on KDHX-FM in St. Louis. Those of you in St. Louis can order tickets by calling 314-534-1111. For information on other cities where the tour is playing, check out the Drowsy Chaperone web site.

Here's the text of the review.

With music and lyrics by Lia Lambert and Greg Morrison and book by Bob Martin and Don McKellor, The Drowsy Chaperone , which bills itself as "the funniest musical on Broadway" is possibly the most elaborate in-joke Broadway's lavish Marquis Theatre has ever seen, and that includes Raquel Welch's starring role in Victor/Victoria.

Local audiences now have a chance to see what all the fuss is about as the national tour of the show - which originated in Ontario just last month - plays the Fox through November 11th [2007]. The Drowsy Chaperone, as it turns out, is a very smart and mostly very funny parody of musical theatre and, to a certain extent, the very concept of theatre itself. It's fun to watch, and I found my appreciation of its cleverness increasing in retrospect - always a good sign.

As the show opens, a character known only as The Man in the Chair is seated in his "rather ordinary New York apartment". Suffering from what he describes as "a non-specific sadness", he invites the audience to escape with him by listening to the deluxe 2-LP set of his favorite musical, The Drowsy Chaperone by Gabel and Stein. As he drops the needle on his low-fi, the fictitious musical takes shape in his imagination and comes to life on the stage. As the show goes on, The Man in the Chair guides the audience through the convoluted story and offers his own ironic comments.

The show begins as both a send-up of and affectionate tribute to late-1920s froth but soon broadens its targets to include much of mid-20th century American musical theatre. All the jokes you might expect are there, along with a few at the expense of the LP itself, as in a moment near the end of hyperkinetic production number, "Toledo Surprise", when a scratch in the record (remember those?) causes the entire company to repeat the last couple of bars until The Man can work his way through the dancing throng to stomp on the floor and make the needle jump.

There's a similar moment when The Man in the Chair starts what the thinks is disc 2 of The Drowsy Chaperone and walks away "to pee". Unfortunately his LPs have gotten mixed up, and instead we see an embarrassingly racist moment from one of Gable and Stein's lesser efforts, The Enchanted Nightingale - which just happens to be a neat parody of The King and I.

There's a great deal more of that sort of thing. The "Bride's Lament", for example, is a ludicrous "mad scene" featuring leading lady Janet Van De Graaff (as in "generator"), deliberately awful lyrics involving a monkey on a pedestal ("try to block them out - they're not the best"), and a production number that seems to have been inspired by the use of major hallucinogens. The fictitious musical reaches its absurd finale when Trix the Aviatrix (Fran Jaye) performs a multiple marriage aboard her plane and everyone flies down to Rio - without Fred Astaire, but with The Man in the Chair - for a honeymoon.

Bringing all this to life is a talent-packed cast of eighteen remarkably energetic performers. Most of them are pulling off, with great success, the dual trick of playing both characters in The Drowsy Chaperone and the actors playing the characters in The Drowsy Chaperone, about whom The Man delivers little biographical tidbits as the evening progresses.

Jonathan Crombie is completely charming as The Man in the Chair, a role he played earlier this year in the Broadway production. Although it's a non-singing role, it's the linchpin of the show, and on opening night Crombie's strong performance won the audience over immediately. As Janet Van De Graaff, a role she understudied on Broadway, Andrea Chamberlain is just electrifying (sorry about that), and Nancy Opel hams it up hilariously as Stage Legend Beatrice Stockwell, over-acting her way through the role of the titular Chaperone.

Real-life brothers Peter and Paul Riopelle are broadly and appropriately comic as The Tall Brothers (yes, they're both short), a vaudeville duo playing a pair of gangsters who appear to have wandered in from Guys and Dolls. Mark Ledbetter is all toothy charm as Percy Hyman, the charming matinee idol playing Robert Martin - highly appropriate since, as The Man in the Chair reminds us, Hyman was the spokesman for All-Brite Brand Toothpaste, the principal component of which was cocaine ("if you looked at the label, it was the fifth ingredient down - right after Sugar").

Other outstanding performers include Georgia Engel repeating her Broadway role as Ukulele Lil and Robert Dorfman as Noel Fitzpatrick, a pair of now-unknown vaudeville vets playing the dotty Mrs. Tottendale and her faithful underling Underling; Cliff Bemis and Marla Mindelle as Jack and Sadie Adler, a Burns-and-Allen-style comedy team playing harried producer Feldzieg and chorine Kitty; James Moye as "former silent film star and world-class alcohollc" Roman Bartelli, camping it up as Aldolpho; and Richard Vida as the all-purpose Best Man, George.

Technically, the show runs like a very well oiled machine, with rapid set and costume changes flipping us back and forth between The Man's shabby apartment and glitzy world of the musical with ease, and all the jokes delivered with split-second precision. Better yet, the sound is remarkably clear, which is not always the case with today's over-amplified musicals.

At just over one hour and forty minutes with no intermission (The Man in the Chair hates them), The Drowsy Chaperone neatly avoids what I have come to regard as the curse of recent musical comedies: not knowing when to quit. There are just enough jokes and just enough musical theatre fan references to be entertaining. The Man in the Chair has just enough back-story to be interesting but not so much that he becomes genuinely sad. Like Baby Bear's chair, porridge, and bed, it's all just right.

The Drowsy Chaperone runs through November 11th [2007] at the Fox in Grand Center. Don't think you have to be a musical theatre geek to enjoy it; the in-jokes are general enough to appeal to just about anyone who has ever seen a Fred Astaire film or a Rogers and Hammerstein show and the evening really is great fun overall. You'll probably be able to get decent seats as well. If opening night was any indication the show isn't drawing the massive crowds one sees for mega-musicals like The Lion King, although Chaperone is no less entertaining. Call 314-534-1111 for ticket information.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Happy Returns

[This is my review of Steve Ross' show Good Things Going for KDHX-FM in St. Louis]

When Steve Ross brought his Travels with My Piano program to the Cabaret at Savor series last year, I noted that the intimate Flim Flam Room was possibly the idea venue for him. Debonair, witty and charismatic, Ross established an immediate connection with his audience that was all the more effective when nobody in that audience was more than 20 feet away.

This year he brings his Stephen Sondheim show, Good Things Going, to the Savoy Room, where most of the audience is at least 20 feet away. And yet, on Friday night that immediate connection was there, despite the distancing effect of the Savoy Room's raised stage, the mediocre sound system, and a back injury that was clearly causing him discomfort.

Happily, even with a bad back and a room that makes it impossible for anyone except his bass player (the always-impressive Kim LaCoste) to see his piano playing, Steve Ross is still, in the words of the New York Times, "the Crown Prince of New York cabaret". His traversal of the work of the last of the great Broadway composers is just as polished, graceful and illuminating as you'd expect it to be.

I refer to Sondheim as the last of the great Broadway composers, by the way, because his work represents both the apotheosis and the termination of an art form that spanned most of the 20th century. He took the traditional Broadway musical about as far as it could go (to borrow a lyric from his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II) and then pushed it over the edge. After Sondheim, composers had to find a new direction - which many of them are doing. But the form will never be quite the same.

Mr. Ross' show inspires such thoughts because it does such a fine job of representing the scope of Sondheim's work. From the early romanticism of "I Must Be Dreaming" (from All the Glitters, which Sondheim wrote at the tender age of 18), to the ambiguous wisdom of "Marry Me a Little" and "Sorry/Grateful" (Company) and the yearning of "Johanna" (from Sweeney Todd, undoubtedly one of the previous century's masterpieces of musical theatre), Mr. Ross filters the light of the composer's genius through is own unique prism, and the results are dazzling.

Mr. Ross delivers all this with his usual panache and, when appropriate, dry wit - some of it musical. Two examples that come immediately to mind: a quick instrumental quote from "Blue Skies" towards the end of "Who Could be Blue" (one of many songs cut from the epic-length Follies) and the musical equivalent of a tap-dance break in "Ah, Paris!" (which was not cut), with Ms. LaCoste's bass playing Fred Astaire.

In its original version, Good Things Going was a typical one-act cabaret show, but at the Savoy two acts are mandatory (due, I presume, to the profits gleaned from the bar), so Steve Ross fans get a bonus in the form of a "greatest hits" medley right after intermission. I was glad to find one of my favorite Noel Coward numbers, "Mrs. Worthington", in there (complete with some extra lyrics that were apparently considered too vulgar to be printed back in 1935, if my copy of the sheet music is any indication), along with his enchanting instrumental tribute to Edith Piaf and favorites by Porter and Berlin.

Steve Ross' Good Things Going will be entertaining and enlightening local audiences through Sunday [October 28, 2007] at the Savoy Room, just under the roof at the Sheldon Concert Hall. For ticket information, call Metrotix at 314-534-1111.

Next at the Savoy Room: Julie Budd's The Standard of Things, November 29th through December 2nd, 2007. For more information, check out the web site at .