Memorable Cabaret from the First Half of 2017

By ROB LESTER*** I’ve been thinking about some outstanding shows I saw in cabarets in the first half of 2017… solo/group/tribute/musical comedy, etc.  Usually, writers look back at the end of the calendar year, but I’m often amazed when the calendar pages turn and it’s suddenly July and the “new” year is half over and I try to catch my breath when things slow down a bit in the beginnings of summer and think about all that I saw in those first six months between snowing and sweltering. I took some time off, so I thus missed some acts that might have shown up on this list otherwise.  I’ve heard buzz about some and hope they’ll be reprised so I can catch them or that I can see the performers in a group show or open mic.  Another reason to look back now is that, human nature being what it is, memories can start to fade a bit after several months when the year winds down and we think back to those earlier months, more recent triumphs perhaps crowding out the prior delights.  That’s one reason I’ve resisted making “Best Of” lists after a full year has gone by.  Besides that, I’d probably have trouble being limited to ten shows if asked to make a “Top Ten” list after 12 calendar months.  Anyway, here are some favorites —six from the first six months of the year, and a postscript or two.  Some will return in our second half of the year.

MEMORABLE SOLO SHOW (RETURN TO THE CABARET FOLD): I can’t begrudge someone for being a dedicated parent, stepping back from the cabaret spotlight to raise kids.  I just felt bad, selfishly, that I’d missed out on Lisa Viggiano.  I really only knew her talent by reputation and via a captivating live album I’d belatedly come across and purchased and instantly fell in love with.  It had been recorded at Don’t Tell Mama and evidenced a singer whose strong communicative way with lyrics really came through with just the audio portion.  I imagined, logically, that if I could also see her perform, it would be riveting.  Now experience proves the presumption positively, powerfully true. She’s back.  Her return last year earned her a MAC Award nomination and her appearances in her own show, Three’s a Charm, and guest spots continue to earn her fans. Her booked featured segment in the new monthly open mic at 53 Above, Spotlight on You, was a small but impactful sampling. The voice itself is sublime, a kind of cozy beauty your ears will be ever grateful for, and the emotion, intelligence, and warmth she invests into her phrasing make for a rich and satisfying experience.  Add to that a secure stage presence, eyes and face that light up with in-the-moment wonder or affection —even on a breezier number that might not normally be expected to reveal such three-dimensional depths—  and you have magic.  Give her a mature story song or one that pleads, promises, or placates and get ready to be moved.  Lisa Viggiano returns with her show and musical director Tim Di Pasqua, including his moving title song, on Friday, July 28 at 7 pm at the same spot where that aforementioned CD was recorded — Don’t Tell Mama.   And the next week, on August 4, the Together show bringing her together again with those MAC co-nominees (Sally Darling, Celia Berk, Josephine Sanges, Meg Flather) is back, too.  You can go home again!

MEMORABLE SOLO SHOW (LONG-ESTABLISHED VETERAN): The selfish part of me wishes it would be illegal for certain terrific longtime old-school veterans to ply their wares so rarely.  Case in point is Marta Sanders.  She is the epitome of the kind of Entertainer (note the on-purpose capital E) who delivers every time with consistent home runs without ever sounding stale, no matter how many times and years she’s done her standbys that her audience rightly demands.  She is the comedic queen of characterization, whether she’s playing the thickly-accented woman partially translating her expressions, the happily married lady who can’t help being attracted to the “Hunk on the Bus” who—spoiler alert— meets a dastardly end before her stop, or the lady recalling the unlikely romantic times in “Warsaw.”  Her signature piece, “Been Around the Block,” nails her attitude of not suffering fools gladly when it comes to young whippersnappers who think they know a whole lot more than they do.  Her strongest special material, like this one, brings wit and hilarity courtesy of lyricist Jay Jeffries, with music composed by her ace musical director/pianist John McMahon (who also wrote the score to the theatre piece on this list).  The sassy Sanders of the big voice and big personality reprised such old favorites in her latest show, Follow Me, whose title is inspired by her other career as a tour guide.  Her stories of trotting around the globe showing the sights are hilarious — she seems to attract wacky incidents like a magnet.  I got a sample of that side of her garrulous graciousness on a special cabaret tour of the cabaret venues and the streets where they used to be, too, where nothing but ghosts and memories remain.  The tour ended up at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, where merry Marta does her shows.  And, lest you think that she is content to just be funny, rest assured that the old saw about the clown being all the more effective when suddenly turning serious, her occasional sincere ballad is a welcome pleasure, too.  Her love of live, embrace of life’s absurdities, and absurd subject matter celebrated in song are all parts of why you believe her when she sings the potentially super-sentimental “What a Wonderful World.”  And the world seems wonderful indeed when this lady is in the spotlight and everything else, for an hour, recedes into the dark.  She did shows at the Beechman in January and February and, while the venue’s calendar isn’t filled in for the final months of the year, it’s great to see that the October page shows her returning on the 14th.  Mark your own calendar.      

MEMORABLE SOLO DEBUT:  She gets better and better all the time:  Joie Bianco soared above many other older singers in her early teens when she first drew attention and was deemed an “Audience Favorite” in the tough MetroStar competition at the Metropolitan Room.  Later crowned MetroMinor Winner in a separate contest for teens and kids, she’s been booked time and again for special shows and benefits there, including tributes to Natalie Cole, The Wizard of Oz, and fundraisers for the charity Help Is on the Way Today.  Last summer, by audition, she was chosen among the throng of teen entrants from across the United States in Michael Feinstein’s Songbook Academy in Indiana and given a special award as Most Promising.  Just this week she returned there for her second year, accepted again as one of 40 high-schoolers and was chosen as one of the Top Ten.  In between summers and schooling at Talent Unlimited High School, she was chosen by KT Sullivan for a coveted spot in the Cabaret Convention concerts at Jazz at Lincoln Center, singing “People” which caused her to be singled out as one very special person by The New York Times.  (She’s invited back this October.)  I recommended her to the Cabaret Festival in Long Beach, Long Island and its founder/leader quickly agreed and booked her for her own well-received concert there in May and to be part of the annual panel discussion where she also sang.  Before that, in March, as she turned 16, the Metropolitan Room booked her for what was a knock-your-socks-off official solo cabaret debut.  Well, kind of a solo: she chose to invite special guests to join her in song, including MetroMinor host Beau Howard and Minda Larsen (who actually beat her in MetroStar and later became one of her coaches, along with Marilyn Maye).  The March show continued her march into excellence as her always impressive gift of a great vocal instrument and assured pitch were joining by increasing stage presence and deeper involvement with — and demonstrated understanding of— lyrics. An old soul who truly loves the old standards, she graces them with her talents, but can also score with material that is not older than she is, such as “For Good” from Wicked.  She showed real aplomb and refreshing down-to-earth qualities, including modesty and appreciation, in her patter. She has a swell sense of time and really showed she can swing with “Straighten Up and Fly Right” and soar through Brigadoon’s “Almost Like Being in Love.”  That song debuted on Broadway 70 years ago, but her youth made it seem youthful—and I suspect she’ll still be soaring musically when she is as old as the song and older.  Jeff Cubeta was a simpatico musical director.  It’s been my rewarding experience to see so many performances leading up to this year’s fine work.  Cabaret Scenes Magazine has taken note and asked me to pen an article on her (another coup for someone her age) for the September/October issue. As another song in the aforementioned Wicked goes, this Talented Unlimited High School student’s “future in unlimited.”  

MEMORABLE SONGWRITER TRIBUTE:  If they’d only written the now-and-almost-forever The Fantasticks and rested on their laurels and royalties, songwriters Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones would be worthy of any musical theatre hall of fame.  But they kept writing interesting scores, I Do! I Do!, Colette Collage, and Celebration worthy of celebration.  Taking a cue from their common history of being in the long line of actresses playing the ingenue role, Luisa, the Girl in The Fantasticks, Carole Demas and Sarah Rice joined forces to honor the tunesmiths they love personally and professionally in Thank You for Your Love.  The June premiere had the touching bonus of having Jones in the house, invited on stage to make some comments.  Miss Demas and Miss Rice were at their endearing and vocal best, in solos and duets, and the affection and friendship informed everything.  The sensitive, musically adventurous, and articulate material was in superb hands.  It was a classy affair.  To borrow one of the song titles, “My Cup Runneth Over.”

Those not familiar with the writers’ lesser-known work had ear-opening discoveries to dazzle them, such as the score of Philemon, another show Carole Demas had the joy of starring in.  Charles Repole directed with care and musical director Joe Goodrich, appropriately named since his work was both very good and very rich, added some vocal contributions and his piano and harp (Maria Banks) combination was a classy and ideal choice, recalling that memorable sound so important to the delicate atmosphere of The Fantasticks that it takes very little effort to “Try to Remember.”  I’m very happy to see that this musically voluptuous valentine will return to the Laurie Beechman Theatre on October 1 and 7.  Highly recommended!

MEMORABLE TRIBUTE TO ICONS: Two women who played Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli in a production of the musical about Peter Allen, Liza’s first husband, The Boy from Oz, had the bright idea to play the women again by recreating the ladies’ historic joint concert at the London Palladium. This was a smart decision that sets their set apart from the many tributes to Garland and/or Minnelli.  Liza was just 18 and her performing persona wasn’t quite yet crystallized or refined.  Most people “doing” Liza, whether with adulation or exaggeration and satire, concentrate on the Minnelli of later years in order to use songs that became her trademarks in the Kander and Ebb and flow of her career.  Michelle Lauto as the budding star and Nancy Hays as the proud mama (Isn’t she marvelous?”) are refreshingly right, sharp, loving, diligent, and spot on, without at all making the show seem like a dusty or conservatively cautious museum piece or veering into caricature.  With Judy’s career, there’s so much to pick from; although she died young, she’d already logged thirty full years of work after The Wizard of Oz when she left the world.  The Palladium concert was special not just because of the mother/daughter interaction and Liza still being new to most audiences, but because they joined their voices in duet on some of the Garland standbys Liza later avoided: “Rockabye Your Baby (with a Dixie Melody)” and the songs about those cities “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)” and “San Francisco.”  And, early on in the night, they “greeted” each other with the then-current hit title song from a Broadway show that’s come ‘round again—”Hello, Dolly!” — substituting the words “Hello, Liza” and “Hello, Mama.” The actual recording and video of the Palladium pow-wow are performances I committed to still-indelible memory by being madly in love with them in very early days when my record collection was thin and I listened to my favorites relentlessly and frequently. So, I didn’t need to do my homework to see if Hays and Lauto had done theirs.  They’d clearly studied the originals; they captured nuance after nuance, detail after detail in phrasing, gestures, asides, from hugs to hoorays.  Very impressive! Miss Lauto embodied the fearless ferocity of the decidedly young Liza, with the green, game, and gawky elements, showing no influence of knowing how she’d morph.  Miss Hays perhaps had more of a challenge in capturing the gamine Garland vulnerability and nervous tics; at times, she seemed too solid and vital for the legend as she came off that night, the vibrato not as wide and wavering.  But she had plenty of the persona down to bring us up to our feet to cheer.  Robert Ollis is pianist/music director, honoring those iconic arrangements, from the first Liza solo recordings to her taking over the Barbra Streisand parts in the duet  medleys done just months before on Garland’s TV variety series.  I’m hoping this show comes back soon.

MEMORABLE MUSICAL THEATRE PIECE PRESENTATION  (IN A CABARET SPACE): Aesop’s Fables have been around a very, very long time and, while we can learn a lot of life lessons from a tortoise and a hare and a fox and grapes, there is a whole lot of LOL fun to be had in a madcap musical about Aesop that’s been kicking around for some years.  The super score is by a super-duper old-school musical comedy team: composer John McMahon and lyricist Jay Jeffries who pack a lot of pow into the songs that make me grin from ear to ear.  Their well-crafted songs are so satisfying and on target for characters and situations. I’ve seen a few presentations of the show, which used to have another title, and is now called Love and Other Fables, with the cute subtitle The Musical You’ve Been Waiting 3,000 Years For! Steven Strafford played lovable but love-hungry Aesop, the pre-legendary tale spinning just spinning his wheels, at this concert version at Feinstein’s/54 Below, as he did in an earlier showing in Chicago, with direction at both by Jay Binder.  The mega-talented composer sparkled at the piano, also narrating plot points to put the songs in context and let the audience see how it all comes together.  Not incidentally, the two songwriters are also responsible for the mega-funny script which, sadly, could only be suggested in snippets in this abbreviated version, but that I was lucky enough to have experienced in earlier exposures.  (It’s a comic performer’s field day.)   

In the musical Kismet, we start with a beggar proclaiming “Rhymes Have I” and in this show we have the slave Aesop boasting “I’ve Got Fables” —but he’s got clever rhymes galore, too, courtesy of witty Mr. Jeffries who, if slavery weren’t politically incorrect, one would be tempted to chain to a desk to write verse after quatrain for musical after new musical.  We need him!!  A showstopper called “Legs!” has as its title what, in theatre parlance, this musical has–meaning a long future if someone is smart enough to pick it up and let it run.  When I first saw it some years ago, I thought it was better than any summer festival musical comedy I’d seen trying to its legs.  Over 100 shows later, I still feel that way and appreciate and respect it even more.  Besides pining for romance and a King threatening Aesop with death, and two women banished to the Island of Lesbos, the parable of the mighty lion and the resourceful mouse he meets, the story includes some mind-stumping riddles that can change one’s fate.  The relevant riddle in real life is what’s taking so long for this audience-pleasing show to be booked into a New York theatre so that the cheers and giggles I heard loud and clear can go on for more than a night here and there.  Keep your fingers crossed and one day you may need them when attending this show (to keep your sides from splitting with laughter).  

P.S. …. AND IN A CLASS BY HERSELF:  She can get no praise higher, she can definitely inspire, she’s still on fire, and she never seems to tire.  It seems almost unnecessary/redundant to (re)state that Marilyn Maye remains a marvel.  She is almost beyond review because it’s understood that there is no one performing in Cabaret Land, of any age, who can come close to her to her sparkle and spectacular life-affirming style of joyful entertaining.  The fact that in nine months she’ll be closing the door on nine decades of life and finding a cake that’ll fit 90 birthday candles is as surely remarkable and the lack of doubt that she’ll be back doing what she does best — showing us that every day is cause for celebration, as illustrated by her mantra, the Jerry Herman song “It’s Today.”  Vibrant and captivating as ever, Marilyn Maye is a treasure who never fails to bring a lift to the whole room, raise the bar, and soar to the skies with her voice and spirit.  I’ve seen her more times than any cabaret performer I’ve seen and seen in solo shows since I began reviewing in 2005 (she made her triumphant NYC return not long after, but, I was already an admiring owner of all her recordings, but had never seen her perform except on my TV screen).  In the first half of 2017, I saw her at the Metropolitan Room, Feinstein’s/54 Below, the 92nd Street Y, Jazz at Lincoln Center, The Triad, Birdland, and zipping around town to teach her master classes and private coachings, with a grin and a song in her very, very big heart.