Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Children's Hour

MaudeMaggart came to town with her latest show, Parents and Children, trailing rave reviews the way a comet trails light. From the New York Times to Cabaret Scenes, critics have been throwing superlatives at her with the profligacy of insurance company CEOs awarding themselves bonuses. When I took my seat at the Kranzberg Center, therefore, I was prepared to be impressed.

And so I was, albeit not quite as much the East coast critics have been. Make no mistake; Ms. Maggart is a tremendously talented young singer who gets right to the heart of a song. She knows what the lyrics mean to her and delivers that meaning with a supple, silken voice and a poised stage presence. Her selection of material is wide-ranging and intelligently assembled, and music director John Boswell’s arrangements fit her as beautifully as her stylish black evening gown.

So what’s my complaint? Primarily, it’s with what the Times critic Stephen Holden calls her “fluid body language” and what I saw as physical exaggeration – a tendency to rely on overtly theatrical gestures, some of which shade over into Cabaret Cliché territory. At times my companion for the evening actually stopped looking at Ms. Maggart so that she could better appreciate her sensitive singing without being distracted by baroque movement.

It struck me, in short, as indicating rather than acting.

In all fairness, it must be said that Ms. Maggart’s physicality seems to be a natural part of her stage persona and, in fact, once I got accustomed to it I found it less distracting. But on the whole I don’t think it served her well. Too often, it pulled me out of the compelling moments Ms. Maggart’s voice was creating. When, on the other hand, when she held the mic instead of working with it in the stand, I felt the resulting restriction in movement made her performance that much more effective. Trite though it may be to say so, there really are times when less is more.

That said, there’s no question that Parents and Children is an evening of highly evocative readings of wonderful songs offering hilarious and heartbreaking insights on the complex ways in which generations clash and commingle. Many of them were new to me, including a revelatory pair of tunes by the unjustly neglected Marshall Barer (best known as the lyricist for Once Upon a Mattress, written with unjustly neglected composer Mary Rogers), the big band novelty “You’re Too Good for Good for Nothing Me” (which Helen Forrest recorded with Harry James), Alec Wilder and Loonis McGlohan’s winsome “Be a Child” and Bobbie Green’s sadly funny “No Way Jose”, about a mother-daughter relationship going wrong in a very terrible yet understandable way.

Even when the material was more familiar, Ms. Maggart and Mr. Boswell gave it a new and personal twist. Combining Maury Yeston’s “My Grandmother’s Love Letters” with Robin Williamson’s “First Boy I Loved” (immortalized by Judy Collins), for example, results in a kind of musical double exposure, with a mature woman’s reflection on her own first love superimposed on a young girl’s discovery of her grandmother’s romantic past. It was touching and beautifully rendered. And while Ms. Maggart described the sentiments of the Gershwin’s “The Man I Love” as dated and a bit unhealthy (which, I suppose, they are) that didn’t stop her from delivering a heartfelt performance.

There were also many delightful comic moments in the evening. The double entendre drollery of Rodgers and Hart’s “A Little Birdie Told Me So” (from the now-forgotten 1926 hit Peggy-Ann), complete with whistling chorus, was great fun as was Marshall Barer’s “Billions of Beautiful Boys” with its endlessly inventive variations on the number three (as in “two boys and me”). Ms. Maggart also sprinkled the evening with amusing recollections of her childhood as a bi-coastal baby. There was, perhaps, a bit more biography than necessary (especially since there was a fairly good one in the program), but that’s a minor gripe.

Ditto the occasional lighting problems. More than once Ms. Maggart was either in the wrong light or out of the light altogether. Lighting at the Kranzberg is normally (you should pardon the expression) spot-on, so it’s hard to know exactly what to make of that.

Cabaret is a very big tent with room for a wide variety of performance styles and Ms. Maggart is nothing if not stylish. The fact that it’s a style I did not find entirely congenial in no way detracts from her talent or remarkable success. It’s a matter of personal taste, which is very nearly as idiosyncratic as performance style.

Maude Maggart’s Parents and Children concludes on Saturday, October 24; for ticket information, call 314-534-1111 or visit the Cabaret St. Louis web site. To find out where she’s playing next or purchase any of her several CDs, visit her web site at

Next on the Cabaret St. Louis schedule: Steve Ross with an Alan Jay Lerner tribute November 4 through 7, a two-night stand by Nellie McKay November 18 and 19, and the first local appearance of mother-son duo Bill Charlap and Sandy Stewart December 9 through 12. Check out for details.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Angie's List

Many of the graduates of Tim Schall’s St. Louis Cabaret Conference have gone straight from there to the Kranzberg Center with their solo shows. Angie Schultz – who was in the very first conference in 2006 – took the long way around: she went through New York. Her latest show, Kiss Me Like You Mean It, premiered at Don’t Tell Mama on West 46th Street last May. Now that Jim Dolan’s Presenters Dolan organization has finally brought her home to the Kranzberg (on October 3rd and 4th) all I can say is: it’s about time!

If Mr. Schall (one of the many local performers taking a busman’s holiday to attend the show Sunday night) is looking for a poster girl for the conference, he could hardly do better than Ms. Schultz. Kiss Me Like You Mean It is very nearly the ideal show, boasting a finely balanced program of mostly newer songs, wonderful custom-tailored arrangements from pianist/music director Brett Kristofferson (including some of his own material), and performances by both Ms. Schultz and Mr. Kristofferson that were pitch-perfect – both musically and theatrically. The ease with which she graced the space and the charming, self-effacing humor which she brought to both her patter and her singing were a winning combination.

Ms. Schultz’s ability to be entirely herself on the stage is not, by the way, something to be taken lightly. As performers, so many of us spend so much time being someone else that stripping away all of the other personae and simply being ourselves can be the most difficult act of all. Combine Ms. Schultz’s comfort with her own identity with her solid, beautifully controlled vocal instrument and you have a recipe for a great night of cabaret.

Even the evening’s title is perfect, suggesting a mix of assertion and seduction that is reflected in just over a dozen songs which run the emotional gamut from John Bucchino’s touching “Unexpressed” and Ben Folds’ lovely “The Luckiest” to Jill Sobule’s demented “Mexican Wrestler” (easily one of the strangest torch songs ever written) and the always-amusing “Compromise” by Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler. There are also two gems of love lost from Mr. Kristofferson – “Goodbye Love” and “Things that Haunt Me” – and director Hector Coris’ hilarious send-up of American Idolatry, “My Moment”. The fact that many of these songs were new to me was yet another bonus from my point of view.

Even the older numbers, such as Arlen and Harburg’s “I Don’t Think I’ll End it All Today” (from their 1959 musical Jamaica, where it was sung by Lena Horne), were hardly warhorses. I love the Great American Songbook as well as the next cabaret addict, but it’s nice to be reminded now and then that pages are still being added to it. Ms. Schultz, Mr. Kristofferson, and Mr. Coris are to be commended for their eclectic and smart song selection.

Ms. Schultz is undoubtedly on her way back to New York by now, where she’s booked for a return appearance at Don’t Tell Mama. Her star is (to paraphrase an old vaudeville lyric) on the ascendant. Meanwhile, The Presenters Dolan continue to feature the best resident talent, with return engagements of Ken Haller’s much-praised Sondheim show October 28th and 29th and Deborah Sharn’s Life Stories on October 17th. For details, check out the web site at