~ By Rob Lester
In cabaret, just getting yourself and your act together can be a Herculean task if you’re you’re the new kid on the block or the returnee after a long absence while you had another career of family or were artistically and emotionally blocked.
But what about if you’ve been around the block a few times and want to do something more challenging and special as a group effort? What about those people? What about those girls in the exciting new act called Those Girls (Eve Eaton, Rachel Hanser, Karen Mack and Wendy Russell)? You have a different perspective and can afford to have different goals when you’ve been there and done that. That buzz you hear isn’t coming from the sound system at the Laurie Beechman Theatre where they have the final show in their first run on Sunday, September 18. And there’s no swarm of bees. It’s just the good kind of buzz of satisfied, impressed recent customers. It sure reached me and I am happy to say that seeing the show puts me among the happy throng. So I decided to ask the talented cabaret veterans about their current show, their process, their choices, and their plans for the future. Here are those answers from Those Girls and those two guys who contributed creative direction in material and its treatment and staging. Cabaret is hardly a new world to these folks of Those Girls. Individually, they’ve been there, done that, and now how they’re doing it collectively in harmony—in both senses of the word — proving that the whole shebang is more than the sum of the four-part harmonies.
In addition to her solo work (which includes a memorable, sensationally tasty CD from years back that is honey to the ears) and her duo association of over thirteen years with Michael Holland in their GASHOLE! shows, sunny-spirited Karen Mack has long been a go-to choice for singers who want enriching supportive vocals. An expert at providing happy blendings, she’s enhanced the sound and style of many shows. I haven’t seen her birth certificate, but I assume Versatility may as well be her middle name. She’s worked with groups doing Manhattan Transfer-style jazzy vocals, with Lina Koutrakos’s rock band, and numerous others. Yes, she’s been around the block AND the rock.
“I only had two real ‘requirements’ going in,” she told me. “We had to include a wide range of material and styles, not just one era or genre or artist; and we all had to be fully invested that it’d never be an option to make the show musically easier or shy away from new material just to get it out there faster. It had to be really right and tight, even if that meant postponing our target dates or letting go of pieces we loved if it they didn’t hold up.” In a stressed comment that echoes the song “Being Good” from the Broadway musical Hallelujah, Baby!, it was good to hear Karen state, “”Good enough’ is not the same as ‘good.’” This invested participant who’s seen many, many cabaret acts—some from the vantage point of a decade-long side job as the person on the other side of the stage lights, serving your drinks — observing shows good and lacking, explained her standards this way: “We’ve all seen shows and performers with the potential to be fantastic, but then adrenaline — and maybe a little panic about cash flow — takes over somewhere in the rehearsal process and it all gets sloppy. They stop asking questions and mindful editing. They start limiting time with outside/experienced eyes and ears they should trust, they resist ‘tapping the brakes’ and taking a minute to re-connect to whether they’re really bringing the goods. Those self-sabotaged shows bum me out more than anything, and it can happen to anyone.” It was all duly noted. “So, I like to think I came into this gig with a lot of immediately relatable, hands-on experience that was helpful for what we were jumping into and what the possible pitfalls might be. One of the nice things about us being grown-ups is that all the Girls had realistic expectations from the jump, and great energy — we were like-minded that good stuff takes effort and communication.”
Such “good stuff” should and does FEEL good for those with experience to trust that good feeling sensed in preparation and performance and sensing audience response. Eve Eaton added, “A wise woman once said to me, ‘If it feels good, do more of it. If it feels bad, do less of it.’ This feels good. And judging by the terrific audience reaction, maybe it helps others feel a little good, too.”
With a background that has included folk groups and a capella organizations, Rachel Hanser was on the same page as far as commitment and priorities. “Creating a show this way took a lot more time than I think any of us thought it would, and we had some ideas that had to be put on the back burner because if we didn’t have enough time to do them well, we weren’t going to do them. Quality remained at the core of all we did– it was a priority from the start and remained until the finish.”
Wendy Russell commented, “I knew I wanted the show to be a true collaboration musically and intellectually. We have a mutual respect and admiration for each others’ talent and individuality and that is at our core.” Wendy is a generous spirit who gives 100% whether she is all alone on stage or part of a team. I’ve known that for years, with ample evidence including a dazzling solo preserved on a 2009 CD (http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/GRACENOTESVOLUMEONE/from/tblink) to this past summer’s participation in Don’t Tell Mama’s Next Big Act competition where she was second runner-up and her recent show which earned her a MAC Award nomination in a crowded field. Her acting AND singing talents were major assets in two musicals I wrote and directed for my own theatre company, Play Nice!, and she has a long history working with Those Girls’ inevitable choice of a director, Lennie Watts.
She has been his own back-up vocalist when he performs and directed hers, including the Under the Covers series wherein she took on the full Barbra Streisand People album. The multiple award-winning Watts came to the project with this invaluable combination of perspectives of helping to shape, conceive, and stage many acts, being a performer himself, and as teacher of such classes of The Arrangement Experience which gave a head-start to the congregation as far as the inventive arrangements and the ongoing partnership with musician
Steven Ray Watkins who emphasized, “For me, it was all about the overall idea of what the show was to be— a bunch of solos with backup singing or a true girl group? I am glad that we went with being an actual group.” Mr. Watts, also President of the cabaret organization MAC and booking manager for clubs in past years, had the same desire: “It was important to me that Those Girls was a true vocal group, not just four singers sharing a show. I knew that all of them were wonderful solo performers, but I also knew, from seeing their work in my Arrangement Experience classes, that they were extremely adept at singing harmonies and blending as a group. I also knew that there needed to be a sufficient amount of staging and movement that needed to be done.” Rachel appreciated this element: “Lennie really showed me how a song can go up to another level with interesting, fun, well-thought-out choreography and blocking. Take “The Naughty Lady from Shady Lane”, for example. It’s a cute song to start with, but adding in the movements Lennie gave us actually helped us to sing the piece better and bring the song’s story even more to life.” Wendy noted how, in retrospect, the four women “gravitated to doing backup vocals for each other in class” over the last couple of years foreshadowed the formation of the group. “We would occasionally say things like, ‘Hey, we should do something together.’ Karen does a lot of the business stuff, Rachel is a great organizer and Eve is the fashion and fun consultant.”
Yes, fun is a priority for Eve and it shows onstage and off. This “Fun Captain” stressed to me, “I could lie and say it’s all about the art or the music or the creation, but honestly — for me it’s about fun. It just so happens that working with these gals and the band and Lennie and making some beautiful harmony is a hell of a fun time. Fun is important. Fun and good rehearsal snacks.”
Sadly, I can’t verify the quality of the rehearsal snacks, not having been around for rehearsals, but I can tell you without qualification that the harmonies are stunningly beautiful and often thrilling. One of the standouts in that area, to my ears, is the superb treatment of a lonely ballad associated with Frank Sinatra. It was especially important to Karen that “at least one standard” was included among the pop and other genres, and that number was her idea: “I suggested we try something lush with a kind of retro feel for ‘In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.’ All agreed on the song choice, and the idea musically spoke to Steven right away. I like to think that, harmonically, that number’s become a nice and lasting calling card for our sound together.” Rachel came up with one of the more unusual items on the set list: “I brought ‘One Time’ to the table. Lennie had asked us to think about a very current song we could do. I heard this group Marian Hill do it on The Late Show with James Corden and I was hooked. In the Arrangement Experience classes, we also play percussion, and I was hoping to find a song to showcase that a bit. This song seemed like the right one – that is, if the others agreed. I thought if we could have very minimal music – no piano, just a bass line, and feature the percussion and voices, it might cool. We agreed that it wasn’t a song that led anywhere on its own, but we thought it was so different from other songs we were doing, and if we could make it interesting enough, it might make the final cut for the show. I wasn’t sure that it was going to fly with Steven and Lennie, but in the end, once we added Donna Kelly’s very cool drums and Ted Stafford’s bass, it all came together, and I was thrilled. And I’m grateful to the other Girls for giving it a chance and adding their creative spin to come up with the arrangement we do in the show.” Wendy’s pick was a historic piece by Bob Dylan, she revealed: “I wanted to do ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’. It’s an incredible song with such a timely message.” She’d previously done it in class as a solo with a much larger ensemble. “We knew we couldn’t just lift that old treatment and expect it to have the same honesty and impact. So we came at it fresh, and found a way to reframe it as a series of solos with strong harmonies on the choruses. I’m really happy with the way it turned out.” Of course, not everything did “make the cut.” Eve’s tongue-in-cheek (?) hope was dashed. She chimed in, “While everyone came in with various suggestions, the group made them come alive. I will say that my idea for a medley of songs about cats was instantly shot down by Lennie ‘No cats!’ Watts.”
Certainly, each member of this creative team had its wish list for material. Musical director Watkins explained, ‘Little White Church’ was totally my idea and it became a fun moment where all of the Girls had the opportunity to play some percussion and have some fun.” In the show, it’s stated with a wink that a certain member of the team heard the piece rendered in a particular venue that was about as far from a church setting as you can get. Their director, never one to be at a loss for suggestions and how to bravely re-imagine a song in an unexpected style that refreshens it told me of one such inspiration, something originally done by Chaka Khan. “I suggested ‘I Feel for You,’ but I heard it in an Andrews Sisters kind of groove. I also suggested that we end with an original song written by Karen Mack. I think it’s the perfect sentiment for their encore.” That selection is ‘Long Goodbyes’ and Miss Mack commented, “I’m super proud of it, and grateful that the team pushed to make it part of our show.” Indeed, an original number helps personalize that moment by revealing the point of view of one of the singers the audience has gotten to know, and more original material is on “the to-do list” for future set lists.
That future is definitely something all involved anticipate with excitement and deserved confidence. As Maestro Watkins maintains, “I hope that the group will continue to work together, and continue to push the harmony envelope. I really pushed for crunchy harmonies, and the girls all stepped up, and I would love to see that continue. The audience reaction has really stressed [loving] the harmonies and that’s what I wanted.” Lennie Watts, in business/marketing mode, expanded the future view: “My goal for Those Girls has always been to not just create a show, but to establish a brand that would have legs far beyond the New York cabaret rooms.” Eve chimed in with, “Our intention is to keep Those Girls going and roll out more goodness.” And she quipped, “I can see it now… Those Girls Love Cats; Those Girls Sing Songs About Baking; Those Girls Like Wine. As my favorite Italian restaurant on Staten Island states, ‘The Pastabilities are endless!’” And, she cutely reminded me, “I changed the dynamic because I brought a youthful flair to the proceedings, being the youngest and all – a whole EIGHT months younger than Rachel!”
Look for Those Girls to bring That Magic, Those Harmonies, and That Fun to cabaret for a long, long time. To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, with a nod to a Cole Porter-invented rhyme, I have the feeling this is the beginning of a beautiful blendship.” As time goes by, I think the friendship and musical work ethic shared by Those Girls and Those Guys working with them –and the great reactions from Those Audiences — will raise the bar for other groups taking to the stage in cabaret. Talented and committed, they’ve got it all—and give their all.
For updates on what Those Girls are doing next, visit their site: http://lrf.net/thosegirls/
For tickets to their show on Sunday, September 18, visit: http://www.westbankcafe.com/laurie-beechman-theatre