Friday, April 30, 2010

It's All Right With Me

Who: Karen Akers
What: Akers Sings Porter: Anything Goes
Where: Cabaret St. Louis at The Kranzberg Center, St. Louis
When: April 28 through May 1, 2010

Cole Porter was a great songwriter. "Of this there can be", to quote another dab hand with lyrics (W. S. Gilbert), "no possible, probable shadow of doubt, no possible doubt whatever". Porter the composer of achingly beautiful melodies was matched only by Porter the author of witty and rueful lyrics. Cole Porter made art, and art is never about any one thing. That's why audiences love to hear great music over and over again and why musicians never tire of performing it. That's also one reason why Karen Akers' Cole Porter show is not just another Cole Porter show. There's never "just" another Cole Porter show.

Another reason is the engaging and gifted Ms. Akers herself. The essence of cabaret, as I have noted elsewhere, is the revelation of the individual performer's personality through music. Ms. Akers' unassuming, elegant and emotionally open personality, combined with her supple and appealing voice, did Porter's work up proud.

This is clearly material for which she has a great affinity. Porter once remarked the he liked "everything as long as it's different". Judging from Ms. Akers' multifaceted and highly successful career, I suspect the same might be true of her.

Yet another reason why Anything Goes was so appealing was the thoughtful and varied choice of songs. The classics were there, of course. Aside from the title tune, the evening included "It's All Right With Me", "Begin the Beguine", and "Don't Fence Me In" (which, in Ms. Akers' rendition, became more about emotional barriers than physical ones), along with celebrated list songs like "Can Can" and "Let's Do It" (including some of Noel Coward's brilliantly literary extra lyrics). But we also had "Come to the Supermarket" from the 1958 made-for-TV Aladdin (with a book by S. J. Perelman — a match made in heaven), "Thank You So Much Mrs. Loughsborough-Goodby" (like Coward's "Mrs. Worthington", a letter written to a "social dragon"), and "Where Have You Been?" (from the 1930 flop The New Yorkers).

That last one was completely new to me and while it covers the same territory as the Gershwins' more famous "How Long Has This Been Going On?", it does so in a classically Cole way, producing what Ms. Akers called "optimistic blues".

There was also the obligatory yet welcome set of Porter Paris songs. A self-confessed Francophile, Ms. Akers' performance of her "Paris Suite" ("I Love Paris", "You Don't Know Paree", and "Allez-Vous-En") struck me as loving and heartfelt — so much so that I was moved to plunk down money for her Under Paris Skies CD after the show.

The evening offered, in short, the comfort of the familiar coupled with the joy of the new. I've always regarded that as an unbeatable combination. But then I, too, like everything as long as it's different.

As is often the case, Ms. Akers was accompanied by the smart and beautifully tailored arrangements of pianist and music director Don Rebic. His Chopinesque arrangement of "It's All Right With Me" was a particular ear-opener, I thought, but none of his work was less than first rate. He and Ms. Akers clearly have great rapport — a sine qua non for quality cabaret.

The show was directed by Eric Michael Gillett — a much-praised performer in his own right — and while I can't really tease his contribution out from that of Ms. Akers and Mr. Rebic, it's clear that he was part of a winning team. In baseball terms (and St. Louis is, after all, a baseball town), I'd have to say Akers to Rebic to Gillett was an unbeatable triple play.

So, did I have any complaints at all? Yes, but after I wrote them down they seemed so trivial (not to say carping) that I deleted them. Let's just say that only God is perfect and let it go at that.

Karen Akers' Anything Goes was the closing show of the current Cabaret St. Louis season; for information on their next one, visit the web site at Meanwhile, cabaret at the Kranzberg continues under the aegis of The Presenters Dolan with shows by Joe Dreyer (May 15 and 15), Christy Simmons (June 26), and an encore of my own show, Just a Song at Twilight, July 24th. Visit for more information.

For more information on the peripatetic Ms. Akers' upcoming appearances, visit her official site at You can even listen to tracks from her Jule Styne album there, a considerable bonus.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Class Acts

Back when I first started writing about the St. Louis cabaret scene around ten years ago, doing so meant covering the out of town stars who played the Grandel Theatre. You could count the local cabaret performers on the fingers of one hand and still have room left to hold your glass of Zinfandel.

Today the international stars still shine locally, largely via the Cabaret St. Louis season, but the number of local cabaret artists has increased exponentially.  If the showcase this past  Sunday (April 25, 2010) at the Jazz Bistro in any indication, that growth shows no signs of stopping.

Credit goes, in part, to producer Jim Dolan's tireless efforts in promoting local talent under his Presenters Dolan umbrella, but to my mind the single biggest contributor to the St. Louis cabaret explosion has been the St. Louis Cabaret Conference (the fourth edition of which takes place August 12 through 15) and its organizer, Tim Schall (pictured).

Now honesty forces me to point out that Mr. Schall is the director of my own solo show, Just a Song at Twilight (an encore of which is planned for mid-July), as well as my voice coach. Even so, there's no denying that his impact on the growth of local cabaret talent has been significant. In addition to the Conference, Mr. Schall also teaches a recurring Cabaret 101 course for performers who want to get their feet wet but aren't yet ready for the full immersion of the conference. Meeting every Saturday for seven weeks, the course culminates in a showcase in which each student performs a set of four songs that he or she has developed during the class. As Sunday's performance demonstrated, Cabaret 101 has become a major incubator of talent in this town.

The show featured eight performers with a wide range of styles and abilities. They were, in order of appearance, Julie Delaney Flanagan, Charlene Reimann, Shirley Aschinger, Steve Brammeier, Donna Rothenberg, Carolyn Lester, Debbie Schuster and Doug Erwin. Musical direction was provided by the redoubtable Al Fisher.

Some were veteran concert and/or musical theatre performers while others had little or no stage experience. Some were Broadway belters while others were more in the Marianne Faithful or Melanie range. Some exuded confidence while others were modestly self-effacing. All of them, however, connected with their audience and were quite clearly having the time of their lives. Those of us in the house showed our appreciation with warm applause throughout the evening and a standing ovation at the end.

And that connection is, ultimately, what cabaret is all about. It's not easy to achieve, especially for those of us coming to it from a theatre background where breaking through the "fourth wall" is generally the exact opposite of good performance practice. But it's magical when it happens in cabaret, and it was certainly happening Sunday night.

The St. Louis cabaret community is expanding and, better yet, the audience appears to be as well. It's exciting to be covering it and participating in it.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Loungin' Around

Who: Daryl Sherman and Dave Troncoso
What: Lounging At The Waldorf: A Night of Johnny Mercer with Cole Porter Sitting In
When: April 22, 2010
Where: The Presenters Dolan at The Kranzberg Center, St. Louis

Cabaret, as I have noted in the past, is a big tent, with room for a wide variety of musical and performance styles. Anyone who doubts that need only survey the acts that have played the Kranzberg Center’s cabaret room recently. We’ve had the laid-back contemporary pop of Robert Breig, the Vegas-style glitz and volume of Lennie Watts’ Manilow tribute, the musical theatre-themed shows of Alice Kinsella and Jeff Wright, Katie McGrath’s courageous emotional vulnerability, the operetta-based vocal virtuosity of Shana Farr, and even my own tribute to Vaudeville – and that’s just within the last couple of months.

That being the case, there was certainly room in the tent for the jazzy one-night stand of Manhattan mainstay and 2009 MAC Award winner (Best Jazz Singer/Instrumentalist) Daryl Sherman.

Obviously wowed by her elegant pianism and informal, honest performance style, the small but simpatico crowd was reluctant to let her go, despite the show’s one hour and forty-five minute running time – a bit long by cabaret standards. Happily trading licks with St. Louis’ own Dave Troncoso on acoustic bass and guitar, Ms. Sherman gave her audience a generous helping of Great American Songbook standards by the likes of Porter, Waller, Rogers and Hammerstein and, especially, Johnny Mercer. Just for spice, there were also side trips to the realms of the blues (Rhodes Spedale’s “ Get Up Because It’s Mardi Gras” and a driving rendition of Handy’s “St. Louis Blues”), bossa nova (Jobim’s “Insensatez”), and mainstream pop (Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Mr. Bojangles”).

Having written all that, I would be less than honest if I failed to admit that I was not as won over as most of the rest of the audience.

The fact is, I’m not really a jazz fan. That’s not a knock on the genre or its performers, just a matter of personal taste. It’s also probably the result of having grown up listening to and playing the classics and show tunes and diving heavily into rock and R&B as a teenager. Jazz has just never been a type of music I sought out.

I mention this so that when I carp about Ms. Sherman’s occasional disservice to a song’s lyric (such as those Richard Maltby Jr. wrote for the “Fats” Waller tune that gave the evening its title) and her tendency to take considerable liberties with melodic lines and rhythms, you jazz fans can take it with a grain (or maybe a shaker) of salt. Yes, I appreciate that the traditions of this genre are not those of musical theatre, but it struck me as ironic that someone who has such great admiration for the lyrics of Mercer or Porter was so free with them. Your mileage may vary, as that of the audience clearly did.

My only real disappointment with the evening was the relatively small turnout, despite PR support from two of our leading jazz radio personalities: KFUO’s Don Wolff (who introduced the show) and my fellow KDHX volunteer Al Becker. A performer with Ms. Sherman’s credentials, it seems to me, should have gotten more support from the sizeable local jazz community. Granted, the Kranzberg isn’t known as a jazz room, but it accommodates the form nicely and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be on the radar of aficionados.

So if you love jazz, support it. You don’t have to be a fan to know it’s an endangered species these days.

To find out more about Ms. Sherman, visit her web site, For news of upcoming shows at the Kranzberg and other Grand Center venues, visit the Grand Center’s Shows and Events site at

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Jewel Tones

Who: Shana Farr
What: Pure Imagination
When: April 17. 2010
Where: The Kranzberg Center, St. Louis.

I love seeing actors do cabaret, and not just because I’m an actor myself. I love it because it gives the performer a chance to step out of the constraints imposed on him or her by casting directors and the rolls of the genetic dice that determined his or her appearance and voice quality. At its best, a cabaret act allows you to see the full range of an actor’s talent.

That assumes, of course, that the actor in question is ready to take that leap of faith and work beyond his or her usual range. Shana Farr does not appear ready to take that leap yet. So while Pure Imagination is unquestionably a very intelligently crafted, beautifully sung and highly entertaining show, it stays well within what would seem to be Ms. Farr’s comic operetta comfort zone. The stakes, to paraphrase Lina Koutrakos, needed to be raised to move the show from the level of “very good” to “great”.

That said, for a first show by a young classically trained artist, “very good” is – well – very good. The song selection, to begin with, is very smart and includes several numbers I hadn’t heard before – always a positive sign. The program leaned heavily on songs that were funny and that showcased Ms. Farr’s impressive technique; the Dick Scanlan/Jeanine Tesori collaboration “The Girl in 14-G”, for example, did both. Her performance was a tour de force.

The logical flow of the evening was excellent. A case in point: Ms. Farr has a parallel career as independent jewelry designer; one of her creations was given away as a door prize at the end of the evening, in fact. She used comments on her experience selling baubles, bangles and beads to men with flexible ethics to take us from Gershwin and Weill’s “My Ship” to Francesca Blumenthal’s “The Lies of Handsome Men” and thence to something I’d never heard on a cabaret stage before: a James Bond film medley. It was ingenious and funny, even if it did treat some of the songs (particularly “Diamonds Are Forever”) with a little less respect than I think they deserve. Still, how can you not like the use of a kazoo as a stand in for the braying trumpet in “Goldfinger”?

Ms. Farr did have a tendency to slip over the line from acting to indicating – not uncommon in performers with classical and operatic backgrounds, in my experience – which sometimes brought me out of the moment in her ballads. But even then her performances were so solid that I was willing to let it pass. Besides, some of the decisions she made in those ballads were quite persuasive and unexpected. Her “My Favorite Things”, for example, began in the darkness of someone trying to overcome sadness and fear by thinking of those favorite things, moving only gradually into the light. It was a insightful choice and very effective.

For her St. Louis appearance, Ms. Farr employed the talents of local musicians Amada Kirkpatrick (performing Steven Ray Watkins’ original arrangements, presumably) on piano and Jay Hungerford on acoustic bass. They played well together and it would have been nice to hear more from them – they had only very brief solo breaks – but given what was probably a fairly tight rehearsal schedule, that probably wouldn’t have been realistic.

The bottom line is that Pure Imagination is a very strong and persuasive first effort by a very talented young performer from whom we should expect to hear great things. The sparkle of her jewelry designs is matched by the flash of her performance; between the two of them, she would appear to have a shining career path ahead of her.

Shana Farr brings Pure Imagination to her home town of Columbia, MO, April 22 and 23 and will be seen in coming months in the Pittsburgh Light Opera’s Student Prince as well as a cabaret showcase at Feinstein’s at the Regency. To learn more about both her performing and design work, you may visit her web site,

Coming up at the Kranzberg: Daryl Sherman at the keyboard with Lounging at the Waldorf on April 22, followed encore performances by Alice Kinsella on April 23 and Robert Breig on April 24. For more information, you may visit the Presenters Dolan web site at

Taking it Easy

Continuing my highly personal comments on some cabaret acts giving encore performances this month under the Presenters Dolan umbrella.

Robert Breig isn’t an actor, but he’s a skilled, relaxed and unflinchingly honest singer whose debut show Feels Like Home (directed by Tim Schall) returns on Saturday, April 24th. The program is, as I recall, heavily weighted towards the 1970s, with numbers by Burt Bacharach, The Carpenters and Kenny Loggins. Songs have been added for the encore, though, including at least one by Robert’s talented music director Carol Schmidt, so a more varied program would appear to be in the offing. Audiences can, in any case, expect an evening that’s “easy listening” in the very best sense of the term from an engaging and likeable performer.

For more information, visit

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Final Alice

Continuing my highly personal comments on some cabaret acts giving encore performances this month under the Presenters Dolan umbrella.

Alice Kineslla's show, A Stand Up Act, returns on Friday, April 23. The show is also a class act and, like Alice, very much in a class by itself. At its best, cabaret allows actors to stretch their wings and speak directly to the audience in their own words. Alice not only stretches her wings but soars in a show that shows off the many facets of here theatrical personality. The moments of high hilarity you would expect from one of our city's finest comic actors are there, but so are moments of great tenderness and sentiment that some might not anticipate. If you know of Alice mostly through her theatrical work, you will be pleasantly surprised to find out how much more there is to her talent. Al Fisher is the pianist, music director, and skilled foil for Alice’s comic hijinks.  Tim Schall directs.

For more information, visit

More to come.

Dancing in the Dark

While it might or might not be true that, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously declared, "[t]here are no second acts in American lives" (and as someone who has gone through at least two acts so far I’m inclined to doubt it) there’s no question that there are second acts in St. Louis cabaret. In the coming weeks, four of them will be playing out at the Kranzberg Center under the aegis of The Presenters Dolan, and local cabaret fans would be well advised to seek them out.

Before I comment on these performers, though, a bit of full disclosure: I have worked with most of them on stage, either in theatrical productions or cabaret showcases. I have also attended the St. Louis Cabaret Conference with most of them, which tends to be a bonding experience among performers. Given my four decades of experience as a performer and critic, I think my comments on their work are still valid – one learns how to wear multiple hats after a while – but your mileage may vary.

Jeff Wright brings his show The Dance back for what is billed as a final performance on Friday, April 16th. Jeff has classic “leading man” charisma, an equally classic crooner’s voice and substantial musical theatre credentials. He brings all three to bear with great success in an evening of songs by, among others, Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, Sammy Cahn, James Taylor, Jule Styne, Craig Carnelia, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and Elton John.

I’m not sure that the theme of dancing is actually sustained through the entire evening, but at the end Jeff does finish up with some actual fancy footwork in “Go Into Your Dance” (from 42nd Street), so I won’t quibble. The bottom line is that The Dance is an impressive showcase for Jeff’s vocal and acting chops, both of which are formidable. Neal Richardson, one of our finest music directors (his work on my show, Just a Song at Twilight, was a revelation), is at the keyboard.

Visit for more information.

More to come.

Friday, April 02, 2010

After the Ball

So, here it is over a week since my last post. What have I been up to and what have I learned?

How much time have you got?

For one thing, I learned that I actually can write and star in a cabaret show about the Vaudeville era that's entertaining, informative, and that people will actually pay good money to see. Yes, there weren't as many as I had hoped (we only sold around 60% of the house's capacity) but their enthusiasm and the warmth of their response was, frankly, pretty thrilling. Throw in the great arrangements and vocal harmonies of my music director, Neal Richardson, and the spot-on advice from my director and vocal coach Tim Schall and it all added up to the kind of experience that any performer has to envy.

In short, I now have a first-hand appreciation of why people do cabaret. There's not much money in it and the audience, even when it's large, is still small by current pop culture standards but, by Neddie Dingo, as a creative collaboration it can't be beat. There will be at least one more performance of Just a Song at Twilight: The Golden Age of Vaudeville at the Kranzberg Center here in St. Louis, it's just a matter of working out at date when the space is free and my irreplaceable music director is available. Stay tuned.

Another thing I've learned in the past week is that I'm still the Quickest Study in the House.

The one thing I hate about acting, you see, is the tedious business of learning lines. It's a pain in the fundament and I try to get it out of the way as soon as possible. As a result, I tend to be one of the first ones off book. I think that might have been one of the reasons why Rich Kelly felt he could call me me the day before my cabaret show opened, ask me if I'd step into the role of Papa Doogan in Stray Dog Theatre's production of his play Mischief Moon, and have a reasonable expectation that my response wouldn't be "are ye feckin' daft, man?" Given the fact that I wouldn't even be able to look at the script until March 28th and that the show opens on April 8th it was, perhaps, foolhardy on my part to say yes. Yet, by God, here it is April 2nd and I've had the book out o' me hand since last night. And with a passable Irish accent.

"That's the stuff", as Papa Doogan would say.

It's quite a good play, by the way - a somewhat offbeat romantic comedy with elements of magical realism. The rest of the cast is also very strong; there's nothing more gratifying than working with disciplined professionals. Tickets are free, but you need to reserve by calling 314-865-1995 or visiting the web site.

But wait - there's more! Not tonight, though. It's already after 11:30 and there's a run-through tomorrow. More anon.

Yes, I can use words like "anon". I'm a writer. It says so on my Dramatic License.