Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Daly Show

Who:Tyne Daly and John McDaniel
What: Songs
Where: Cabaret St. Louis at The Kranzberg Center, St. Louis
When: February 10 through 13, 2010

Hiding behind the deceptively simple one-word title of Tyne Daly’s show is a canny assemblage of music both familiar and obscure from 1904 (George M. Cohan’s “Life’s a Funny Proposition After All”) to 2006 (Kristen Adreassen and Megan Downes’s infectious “Crayola”, winner of the John Lennon award that year), all delivered with the skill you would expect from a veteran actress backed by an award-winning music director. The act, which concluded its national tour this week in Mr. McDaniel’s home town, got a warm reception from the local audience, even if it was nothing like the unabashed love fest Sutton Foster got the week before.

When I’m wearing my Critic Hat (as opposed to my Performer’s Hat, which has the flashing lights), I always try to notice whether or not my reactions are in synch with those of the rest of the house. This time we all seemed to be in agreement: Ms. Daly, Mr. McDaniel and director Dave Galligan gave us a solid, entertaining show – a good evening of cabaret that deserved and got appreciative applause. When we stood, however, it was to put on our coats and leave, not to continue the adulation.

That’s not a criticism so much as a reflection of great expectations. Ms. Daly is an actor with a long and distinguished career on stage as well as film and television. When you attend a cabaret show starring the woman who not only copped a Tony for her Mama Rose but also boats a string of impressive screen appearances, you expect to be not just entertained (which I certainly was) but blown away (which I wasn’t). Given the amount of talent on stage that seems odd.

Part of the problem, I think, was that Ms. Daly appeared not yet completely comfortable with the cabaret form - her patter is occasionally a bit too discursive, for example - and she may still be relying too much on her substantial acting chops. There were times when she seemed to be playing Tyne Daly doing cabaret rather than being Tyne Daly doing cabaret. It’s a fine line that even the best of us can cross without realizing that we’ve done so. Ms. Daly also seemed somewhat physically uncomfortable, but I attribute much of that to the sky-high heels she was wearing. Yes, they looked very cool, but I defy anyone to be at ease in those puppies.

All that said, the fact is that Songs was really quite an impressive show. Ms. Daly was always in the moment. She knew what every song meant and made sure that we knew as well. Big show stoppers like “Fifty Percent” (from the 1978 musical Ballroom) were appropriately impressive, ballads like the Jule Styne/Carolyn Leigh collaboration “Killing Time” (a kind of haiku version of “Losing My Mind”) were compelling, and novelty songs like “Row Row Row” (Ziegfeld Follies of 1912) were great fun.

John McDaniel’s great arrangements and accompanying vocals deserve considerable praise as well. Turning the Buddy Holly hit “Oh Boy” into a ballad, for example, was a nice touch, as was the extended piano solo that concluded Randy Newman’s “Real Emotional Girl”. As those of you who saw him at Savor back in 2007 can attest, Mr. McDaniel is a compelling performer in his own right; Ms. Daly couldn’t have asked for a better collaborator.

Judging from the fact that she premiered a brand-new act at Feinstein’s in New York last month, it looks like Ms. Daly is in cabaret to stay – as well she should. She’s got the smarts, the talent and the ability to work with some of the best people in the business. I don’t see any reason why she can’t make her mark here as well as she has in other areas.

Besides, as anyone who was fortunate enough to see Kitty Carlisle Hart at the Savoy Ballroom back in 2006 can attest, the cabaret tent is big enough to hold you right to the end of your creative life. It’s one of the reasons those of us in our “September Song” years (full disclosure: Ms. Daly is only two years older than yours truly) are not hesitant to enter.

Ms. Daly doesn’t have a web site, so I can’t tell you what she’s up to next, but next on the Cabaret St. Louis calendar is St. Louis’s own Lennie Watts with a Barry Manilow tribute March 3 through 6; you can find out more at Between now and then, the Kranzberg will host Robert Breig (February 17 and 18), Jeff Wright (February 19 and 20 with an encore on April 16), Alice Kinsella (February 26), Christina Rios (February 27) and Monya (February 28) as part of the Presenters Dolan’s array of local cabaret talent; see for more information.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Fostering Talent

In his highly flattering introduction to Broadway star Sutton Foster’s wildly successful fund raising appearance at the Sheldon Thursday night (February 4) for Cabaret St. Louis, Mike Isaacson noted that one definition of cabaret is “when a great song meets a great soul”. Evaluating Ms. Foster’s soul is far beyond my abilities as a critic, but as far as both her songs and singing are concerned the evening met that definition and then some.

If you’ve heard any of Ms. Foster’s Broadway cast recordings you already know that she has technique to burn. Yes, hers is a classic “Broadway belter” instrument (making the traditional cabaret microphone largely unnecessary), but it’s a finely tuned one the can do pianissimo as easily and attractively as fortissimo. Her voice is also seamlessly integrated, top to bottom (although she used the former more than the latter, I thought), so the overall effect was really quite impressive. There were places were her elocution could have been better but, really, that’s quibbling.

Ms. Foster is, of course, more than just a pretty face and spectacular voice. On stage she radiates a self-effacing cheerfulness that’s instantly charming and demonstrates the kind of solid acting skills you’d expect from someone with her resume. If I have a complaint, it’s that her resume was also, for the most part, the alpha and omega of her patter. Only at the very end of the show, in the introduction to an impressive but unsurprising performance of Sondheim’s “Being Alive”, did we get a glimpse into her personal life.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course. Her resume is, after all, a remarkable and interesting one, and the biographical aspect of cabaret can be (and all to often is) overdone. It’s just that I would have welcomed a little bit less of Sutton Foster the star and a bit more of Sutton Foster the person. Your mileage may vary.

While ostensibly a solo act, a good cabaret show is always, I think, a team effort. In this case, the team of Ms. Foster, her music director and pianist Michael Rafter and her director Mark Waldrop was a winning one. The program, to begin with, was nicely balanced between old favorites like “Something’s Coming” (which seems to be everyone’s favorite opening number) and less-familiar material such as the 1957 Dakota Staton hit “The Late, Late Show” and “Say That” - re-write of the Paul Denniker/Andy Razaf classic “S’Posin’” intended for and then dropped from Thoroughly Modern Millie. There were a few lovely ballads such as the classic “Once Upon a Time”, delightful novelty numbers like “Air Conditioner” by Christine Lavin (who apparently doesn’t know how to write a bad song) and, above all, show stoppers along the lines of Drowsy Chaperone’s “Show Off” and (inevitably) Millie’s “Gimme Gimme”.

Mr. Rafter is a talented and sympathetic accompanist as well as an ingenious arranger. Evidence of that showed up early in a medley that skillfully blended songs from three of Ms. Foster’s Broadway hits – Annie, Millie and Little Women – into a seamless whole and continued in his inventive piano parts for simple pop songs like “Sunshine on My Shoulder” and “Up on the Roof”. As for Mr. Waldrop, it’s hard to tell where his ideas end and Ms. Foster’s begin, but whoever came up with the amusing conceit of what I’d call the “Random Show Stopper Moment” surely deserves praise.

The gimmick is that Mr. Rafter selects the titles of five songs from a three-ring binder labeled (I think) “The Big Book of Really Really Hard Songs”, drops them into a gaudy goblet, and has an audience member pick one for Ms. Sutton to sing. It appears to introduce an element of improv show randomness into the evening and perhaps it does, although I suspect that someone with Ms. Foster’s professional acumen would have rehearsed everything in that book well in advance. Certainly her performance of the selected song – Stephen Schwartz’s lovely “Meadowlark” – was a solid as one could want. So, for that matter, was her second dip into the goblet for what was either the third or fourth encore of the evening, Schwartz’s “Defying Gravity”. Still, theatre is all about illusion and you can’t argue with success. She sounded great and her fans – which is to say, nearly all of the audience – loved it.

I say the audience consisted mostly of her fans, by the way, because of the overwhelming enthusiasm of their response. When people start clapping the minute the lights go down and give the performer a standing ovation as soon as she walks on stage, it’s hard not to feel as though you’ve been transported back in time to an early Beatles concert. I mean, nobody screamed, fainted or threw unmentionables, but this was certainly a level of affection that one rarely sees at Cabaret St. Louis shows. Hence the well deserved multiple encores.

This performance of An Evening With Sutton Foster was the first in a series of tour dates, so those of you outside of St. Louis may soon have a chance to appreciate this sparkling talent for yourselves. Visit her web site, , to find out where she will be and when. As this is being written, she has appearances scheduled in Cleveland, San Francisco, Naples (FL) and Charlotte (NC). For those of you here in St. Louis meanwhile, the 2010 Cabaret St. Louis season kicks off officially with Tyne Daly and our own trusty and well-beloved John McDaniel February 10 through 13; visit for details.