Saturday, December 08, 2007

Local Hero

[The text of my review for KDHX-FM of John McDaniel's appearance at The Cabaret at Savor]

One of the things that sets cabaret apart from other forms of musical theatre is the fact that its greatest practitioners are not necessarily its greatest singers. Anyone who has ever seen Steve Ross or Andrea Marcovicci on stage, for example, knows that a powerful performer need not have a powerful voice.

Having seen John McDaniel at the Cabaret at Savor on Friday [December 7th, 2007] in the second of a three-show appearance, I can now add him to the short list of Great Cabaret Artists Who Can't Sing Worth a Hoot. Indeed, John McDaniel the singer has such a limited range that John McDaniel the incredibly successful, Grammy and Emmy Award-winning music director can't always find a comfortable key for his voice.

Big deal. Mr. McDaniel is such a talented arranger/pianist and such an engaging performer that it was easy to forget his vocal limitations and simply enjoy his lively anecdotes about his life and work since graduating from Kirkwood High School locally and his sympathetic performances of a wide range of music.

The program, in fact, was one of the most eclectic the Flim Flam Room has seen, ranging from standards like "You're the Top" and "The Sound of Music" (briefly combined with "Jingle Bells" on the piano) to country star Tricia Yearwood's touching "The Song Remembers When" (which I think I'm going to have to learn), to McDaniel's own compositions. The latter include a pair of top-notch "I was in love" songs*, "My Gemini" and "A Christmas Blue Song" (written for Bette Midler who, alas, never recorded it).

There were even a few numbers with openly political content - an unusual and, in my view, welcome development. Jimmy Buffet's "Only Time Will Tell", for example, asks "Are we destined to be ruled by a bunch of old white men / Who compare the world to football and are programmed to defend", while a medley of John Lennon's "Imagine" and "Happy Christmas (The War is Over)" suggests that we "Imagine there's no countries / It isn't hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too". Granted Mr. McDaniel wimped out a bit by changing "religion to "injustice", but in our increasingly angry political climate simply including the song at all was a somewhat courageous step, so I'm not complaining. And in any case, ending the medley by softly singing "the war is over" made the point effectively enough.

There were other memorable moments in the evening, including Alan Menken and David Zippel's wistful "In the Cards", about a kid who lives an athletic fantasy life through his baseball card collection, and Paul Williams' romantic "Dancing on the Moon" from (of all things) a still-in-development musical based on the TV show Happy Days.

As if all that weren't impressive enough, Mr. McDaniel's penultimate medley is improvised on the spot, based on favorite tunes called out by audience members. The night I saw him, that included "If I Were a Rich Man" "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" and - completely coincidentally - "Mama, a Rainbow" (from Minnie's Boys, an obscure 1970 musical biography of the Marx Brothers). That sort of thing can come across as little more than a gimmick, but Mr. McDaniel makes it work.

John McDaniel's appearance was part of the "St. Louis Home for the Holidays" series of shows at Savor. The series continues with local favorite Tim Schall on December 13th and 14th and concludes with former St. Louisian Lennie Watts on December 20th and 21st. For ticket information, visit the web site, . For information on John McDaniel's upcoming appearances, visit his site, where, if you are so inclined, you can play "Moonlight in Vermont" on the interactive piano graphic on the home page.

Sorry, I just notice things like that.

*According to Steve Ross, there are four types of love songs: "I was in love", I am in love", "I want to be in love" and "New York, New York".

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