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Our reporter, singer/former MetroStar contestant, Kathleen France, reports on the next-to-last night of the summer singing competition, as one of the many audience members with a vote to cast and personal opinions and reactions, which you’ll find here.
This week's MetroStar competition opened with our fabulous host Tom Gamblin doing a rousing rendition of Steve Allen's "This Could Be the Start of Something." The lyric promises, “This could be the start of something big” --- and it was. Six weeks ago, these contestants began their journeys to become the 2011 MetroStar Talent Challenge winner and now, one of these Top 5 hopefuls' dream will become a reality.
Now we just have to wait another excruciating week for the final night where the permanent judges vote one more time, the last night’s guest judges also give points, and these are all added to the votes by judges and audiences results from August 15 and the night of August 22 described below. Each of these performers has come such a long way, it really could be any one of them -- and seeing their growth has become an inspiration for me.
Once again, the panel of esteemed permanent judges – critics Roy Sander and Rob Lester, producer Sherry Eaker, and the club’s booking manager Tanya Holt and fellow staff member Joseph Macchia were joined by a few guest judges. This week's chosen few were: David Kenney of the longtime radio program “Everything Old Is New Again” heard on 99.5 FM Sunday nights and online then and later at www.wbai.org, arts and culture reporter Stephanie Simon from TV station NY1 and author/music journalist Will Friedwald. Tracy Stark was back at the keys to keep the music flowing. This week, each singer had to perform three songs: a selection of their own choosing, one chosen by the permanent judges from those sung in previous weeks and a “common song” that each singer would put a spin on by interpreting it and arranging it in a style of their choosing. I love to see what each artist does differently with it.
Maria Ottavia started us off with the common song, "Come Rain or Come Shine," written 65 years ago by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. She had Barry Levitt at the piano and decided to do the song with a jazz feel. Then she went into her request repeat song, "I Wish You Love," which was absolutely beautifully done. Her lyrics were very connected to her emotion, and then she transitioned into a more driving uptempo version of "That Old Black Magic," another Arlen/Mercer classic from the 1940s. Roy congratulated her, and thought this was her best performance to date. He commended her on her growth in the song, "I Wish You Love." Rob agreed she had grown tremendously, but added her gestures were sometimes troublesome, as now that she was coming out of her shyness more vocally, her gestures had to match the strength of her voice. He felt that her arm movements were timid, below the waist, and that if she added more confidence in her gestures, her performance would grow. Will thought that she was even better when she was bitter. He liked that side of her. I asked each performer this week what they had learned throughout the competition, and if they had any advice for future contestants. Maria confessed to me that she is very shy. She has done numerous theatrical productions for almost 30 years, but told me that, "You can hide behind the character. In cabaret, you have to be yourself on stage." She said being in the MetroStar competition is kind of like going to camp. She had to learn to "un-shy the shy." And she has done this by really taking the judges’ feedback into account, using it as a tool, and coming back the next week trying to implement these bits of critique into her performance. She thinks it would be great for artists to begin their singing careers in cabaret because it teaches you to be yourself, and be honest and truthful on stage. Maria also told me that, "Being in cabaret has helped me in my business career." It has helped her with marketing, promotion and made her multifaceted in various other aspects of her job. Her advice to future contestants: "Be yourself."
The second contestant to perform was Stacie Perlman. She also started her set with the common song, with Tracy Stark on piano. She had a more sultry groove version, and each of the songs in her set was made to have a country, honky-tonk, or bluesy feel. Her free-choice number was "Walkin' After Midnight," the song that made Patsy Cline a star. It had a good set-up, and vocally she sounded great on it, but I tended to think her focus was high, and although it went with her intention and acting choice, she paced back and forth on the stage, and the combination of these two things did not allow me to connect with her. Judge Will Freidwald seemed to agree, mentioning that her focus was high. Stephanie said that she loved her, "Va-va-voom and polish," but she would have liked to see more eye contact. Disagreeing completely was Roy Sander, as he believed that because her character was so frantic and desperate, he preferred she not make eye contact. As you can see again -- different performers reach people in different ways. Stacie's final song, which the judges chose for her from her very first round in July, was "Desperado." She really knocked this one out of the park, by using even stronger intentions in her acting choices, which helped to really build the song. It grew to a musical climax and had a tender, more vulnerable approach, even a plea at the ending. Sherry said, "Stacie, you never fail to amaze me." She thought Stacie had great presence and was comfortable owning the stage and the lyric. She thought she established a very strong character early on.
As an audience member, and being a person who has watched and been a fan of these contestants each and every week, I thought, walking into the competition at the start of the evening, since Stacie is a wonderful actress and has been my favorite performer in numerous past weeks, she would be a shoo-in for my number one slot. However, this was the one week in the competition that I did not vote for her, and I was sad about it. And I came home sad, and wondered what it was that didn't do it for me on this next-to-last night. I came to the conclusion that her set lacked humor, and Stacie is hilarious! The set for me was too symbiotic; although it told a story and had a through line --which I love -- it didn't give me a wide range of emotions like many of the others did. I think if she would have canned, "Walkin' After Midnight" and threw in something closer to one of my favorites of hers from one of the past weeks -- like, "I Cain't Say No" or her "The Babysitter's Here" song, she would have gotten my top slot.
When I asked Stacie what she learned, she told me that, "Being yourself is the strongest character you can establish. Less is more." She tries to approach everything from an acting standpoint and chooses songs that are "meaty." Stacie had a great experience and told me, "Even though it has at times been stressful and terrifying, it has been so fulfilling." Also, she told me that 90% of the music she performed was new material for her. She's definitely polished a lot of new songs, and I can't wait to see an entire show running the gamut of all things Stacie! It's good stuff with moments of brilliance sprinkled in
Our favorite housewife, Fran Leonardis, was up next, bringing the sass from the get-go, and I loved it. She was a riot, stating in her patter that she got into musical theatre in New Jersey so she could meet men. Then she found most men she met were, "gay, married, or mentally ill...and sometimes, if you were lucky, you got the trifecta!" Then she began her set with a new song for her, "He Vas My Boyfriend" by Mel Brooks, from the musical Young Frankenstein. It was a perfect song choice. Barry Levitt was on piano, and there was some confusion as to which order she would be performing the songs. Fran flirted with Barry and the audience, calling attention to the mishap, making everyone laugh, and I loved her use of improvisation. She looks very comfortable on stage. As performers, we always have to be ready for anything -- and go with it! Fran had great patter and did a lovely transition about having her 11- year wedding anniversary, into a very quiet and tender version of the common song, and then blew a kiss to her husband, who was in the audience. Last up, was the judges’ selection, Kander and Ebb’s "But the World Goes ‘Round," which I thought was such an improvement from the first time I had heard her do it. Barry helped musically to give the song a better build and changed up the arrangement. Sherry said it was so nice to hear her slow down. She also said that this time around, Fran gave the last song a purpose. Roy said he loved that the first half of “But the World Goes ‘Round” was more philosophical and the second half was more dramatic. Will said that that was the best version of "Come Rain or Come Shine" he had heard so far. I thought it was Fran's best showing to date. She was in my Top 3 of the night.
When I spoke to Fran, she confided in me that she hadn't been doing this too long. She's been busy being a mom, and doing some community theatre when she can. But she had learned through this process that it is all about song selection. "Play to your strengths. Let the audience see a different side to you, and know when to reel it in." The judges’ comments were the key for her as well. Putting these into action made her come back stronger. Her best bit of advice? "It is very important to make your pianist your best friend," she said. "Choose someone who ‘gets’ you and can put your personality into your arrangements."
Marissa Mulder came onto the stage, with her copper locks flowing behind her, radiating a happy smile, as Bill Zeffiro began playing a music box type of arrangement for her version of the common song. She had an almost serene connection to the lyrics, and Sherry said she had a great "Come Rain or Come Shine." I loved that her patter not only made a nice transition into the next song, but also taught us about it. I love it when I go to a show and learn something I never knew before. Her judges’ selection was "Lorelei," by George and Ira Gershwin, and it was a song about a woman with copper locks -- just like her -- who had her love leave her and she was so distraught, that she jumped into the river and haunts it, so when sailors pass by, they are drawn to her and crash into the rocks. I liked hearing the story behind the song. This time through, I felt she really kicked it up a notch. She found the humor in it. Last was “Look to Your Heart” from the TV musical version of Thornton Wilder’s drama, Our Town. The patter she used for her set-up was so good, talking about the play’s character who, during her life, didn’t appreciate where she was and was always waiting for the next important thing to come along. This made me relate to the song in such a personal way as an audience member that, when she sang the lyrics, it made me cry. Any time I have an emotional connection like goosebumps, laughing, or yes -- crying -- you get a vote from me. Marissa said, "This year's contestants were exceptional and unique." She felt as though she received very helpful feedback from the judges and she believes most of all that, as a singer, you should "commit to your choices and commit to the audience." Her advice to future contestants is: "Pick material you absolutely love, that you have to sing, that cuts you to the core." Will said that out of everyone so far, she was the person he wanted to watch for a 75-minute show. Roy loved everything because it was so heartfelt, understated and simple, but the emotion is there. He remarked that he could hear her sing "Lorelei" once a day for the rest of his life.
Last up, is our last man standing -- Stacey Todd Holt! He looked great and, with no patter to start, Tracy began playing his first song as he looked into the audience for his repeat number, "You Go to My Head" by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie. It was simple, honest, and lovely. Stacey also had great transitional patter, talking about how he loves children and, although he doesn't have any of his own, he is lucky enough to be involved in helping his friends who have kids. Then he said he imagined the love a first-time father would feel for his child, and began "Come Rain or Come Shine" as a tender lullaby. Oh yeah...it made me cry...AGAIN! And no, I don't think it was because I had consumed too many of bartender Eddie Jacques’ white wine sangrias! It was completely effective and apparent from many in the audience audibly bursting out with, "Awwwwww." Even tough guy Roy Sander said it was “kinda brilliant” and moved him to tears. Stacey’s final song of the night was Cole Porter’s "My Heart Belongs to Daddy," sung while kicking up his heels, lying on the piano. It was playful and, after he was through, Stephanie said that some of them at the judging table were still blushing! Will just said, "My first reaction was” ‘Oh no he didn't!’" And Sherry mentioned that she loved his creativity and his different interpretations. Rob Lester joked, "I think you’re going to be terrific when you get over your shyness." He thought his rendition of the common song was “moving” and that he was improving by becoming “more and more real” as the weeks go on.
Stacey told me he tries to simplify. He advised, "Work hard to be open, and eventually take risks." He feels that future contestants should begin the competition singing something solid that they feel comfortable with, and listen to the judges and try to incorporate what they say. He told me, "I was paying good money for a therapist. Cabaret is a less expensive way to deal with my issues."
What a run! It's so exciting to see people grow and change, and what an amazing feeling to be able to witness this growth in others. I'm so proud of my fellow singers. Each of you makes me want to strive to become a better performer. What an amazing gift that we can all share our joy of music with others. It's anybody's game next week at Metropolitan Room. Make your reservations quickly; even though there is no audience vote, the winner will be revealed at the end of the night after the treat of hearing last year's MetroStar, T. Oliver Reid.
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