BY ROB LESTER **** It’s true what some dyed-in-the-wool longtime cabaret fans (and cabaret apologists) say about the genre: A sensational, rangy, gorgeous voice (which our Pick of the Week absolutely has) is not necessarily the main thing. We’re told over and over and nod in agreement (some more vehemently than others) that communicating with the audience, connecting, telling a story: “that’s what it’s all about!!!” — to borrow a phrase from enthusiasts of the Hokey-Pokey. Sure, if you don’t do those things, it ain’t cabaret. Many a song stylist who can phrase a lyric with individuality and acting chops has scored a home run in clubs without having a voice that’s big or pure in tone, especially as a singer ages and what was more golden gets some inevitable rust (one can name numerous examples). But, oh! When a vocalist comes along with a strikingly rich and radiant voice with real, as they say, “chops” PLUS can do the connecting with the listener and personalizing the material, that’s when you have…well, someone like Josephine Sanges. And when you match her warmth and sincerity with the extreme sensitivity and warm, humanistic, romantic sensibilities of Ann Hampton Callaway’s music and lyrics, you’d have to be a statue not to be emotionally moved.
An early performance of the act (which is at Don’t Tell Mama in midtown Manhattan on Sunday, February 19 at 5 pm and returns in March and April—dates below) had the most honored and appreciated guest of honor imaginable: Ann Hampton Callaway herself, who went on record with her enthusiastic thumbs-up, posting her pleasure and encouraging others to attend! Of course, the writer being saluted in Ms. Sanges’ sweetly sensational (or sensationally sweet) To Ann, with Love is even better known by most as a singer of the great standards with a jazz approach of easy accessibility. So, wisely, the tribute pays plenty of entertaining attention to material she has recorded on her numerous CDs. Indeed, the shows title is a tip of the hat to an album that was itself an affectionate tip of the hat to an influence— To Ella, with Love, an acknowledgment of the career of Miss Fitzgerald, First Lady of Song (and iconic Songbook series), whose 100th birthday is celebrated this year. The start of the act, in fact, takes an exact cue from that 1996 release’s start: its first track, “Let’s Fall in Love.” Truth be told, it wasn’t at all a “grabber” of an opener when I saw and pretty much loved the show in its initial run. I wasn’t too worried as I’d seen Josephine Sanges before and heard good buzz from those who’d been at the first or second performance. BUT I know she’s grown into this number and loosened it up a lot to great advantage because I heard her do it on Sunday when she was a guest at Richard Skipper Celebrates. What had once been lukewarm now sizzles and should better set the tone for what is a largely dazzling show.
While I’m in bone-honest, full-disclosure mode, I’ll also add some perspective on that cabaret singer’s toolbox I discussed at the beginning. When I first heard Josephine Sanges, she was quite new to cabaret, fresh from being a finalist in Metropolitan Room’s annual singing contest, the MetroStar Talent Challenge, but still some of her performances were more about the sublime vocal instrument and less about digging into lyrics and owning them. She had an atypical past life, musically speaking. Prior to entry into the Land of Cabaret, she was mainly immersed in religious music. If it’s OK to call employment singing sacred material in a church setting a “gig,” that was it. She still fills her Sundays doing so, and one can see why she’s so well suited to sing of the glories of God and miracles with a voice that’s a bounty of beauty. She’s come a long way, as her earlier show showed and her opening set for the contest’s first-place winner, the impressive Minda Larsen, also demonstrated. And her performances at the annual Cabaret Convention concerts in the big Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center, two years running, won her a bevy of new admirers. Speaking of jazz, Josephine’s jazz skill set is a major asset– her elasticity is like electricity!
Much credit for the turnaround in the Sanges Saga, now living lyrics and having a real back-and-forth relationship with the listeners must go to her savvy director. It’s Deb Berman, a singer we see all too rarely on stage, with the exception of the twice-monthly Sunday Open Mic she hosts at the Metropolitan Room. This lady who went back to singing after a long career in the business side of music at Sony (and who won a Bistro Award her first time at bat in NYC club work) is at ease on stage, phrases conversationally as if she wrote the songs she’s singing (easier said than done!) and is genuinely funny. They’ve been working together industriously for quite some time now, and the lessons are being absorbed with specificity. Still new to directing, she’s a natural there, too, with smart and varied repertoire choices and pacing. How gratifying it is for this reviewer to see the lady in the spotlight is spot on when trusting her director and at doing her homework.
Deb Berman, Director
Genial Josephine is gaining experience in the sometimes tricky territory, getting her feet wet in what Richard Skipper called “the cabaret waters” when he chatted with her on his Sunday birthday bash. She also grabbed the audience’s attention with an impromptu version shaking up “Amazing Grace” and then really touching hearts with a selection from the Callaway songbook: “At the Same Time.” It’s a consciousness-raising number about how we all share the same earth in the same moment in our common vulnerable humanity. It was actually my own introduction to Ann’s work, many years ago, when she was still new in New York, making her way up the singer-pianist-songwriter ladder in restaurants. She’d been troubled by the international political situation at the time (as she still is), and when the Soviet Union, as it was, was coming to an end, sent the song to Mikhail Gorbachev (not a name often mentioned in cabaret reviews)— and later performed it in front of him. While it was a fervent plea for world peace in a particular era, “At the Same Time” is, at the same time, extra relevant in the precarious and downbeat Trump slump. It’s just one of Ann’s boldly lovely compositions heard in the Josephine-Arena of Callaway’s Ways. While earnestness is a strong suit for the tunesmith, and tender love ballads, like “Bring Back Romance,” are a specialty, too, not all her works are serious. Some of these originals, which the composer-lyricist charmingly refers to as her “Anndards” are lighthearted and fun. Case in point: “Hip to Be Happy.” As TV watchers know, she wrote the spunky theme song to the long-running Fran Drescher sit-com The Nanny. That catchy cute quickie gets a new lease on life in this outstanding show in a surprising and clever way.
As always, the vocalist’s musical director/pianist is John M. Cook, doing some good work here, who’s been with her from her church days (which she also takes an uproarious jab at). And the expert Tom Hubbard is on bass, which is always very welcome good news. Treat yourself to a class act performing a class act in honor of A.H.C., a class act in all ways.
The show is Sunday, February 19 at 5 pm. Additional performances are March 12 and April 28.
Don’t Tell Mama is at 343 West 46 Street, in Manhattan. Reservations by phone, after 4 pm: (212) 757-0788
Online reservations: http://donttellmamanyc.com/shows/main/josephine-sanges-to-ann-with-love-2-19