Editor's Desk

Show-Stoppers at Broadway Backwards

(Brian Kellow, Performances, Keeping it Local, Broadway, Musical Theater, Humor) Permanent link

On March 24, near the end of the first half of Broadway Backwards, the annual gender-bending concert benefitting both Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and Manhattan's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, something stunning and unexpected happened. The curtain rose to reveal Patricia Morison, decked out in diamonds and looking far younger than her ninety-nine years, sitting onstage with a music stand in front of her. The applause was overwhelming, and Morison was quite visibly moved, putting her hands up to her face more than once. Dimly remembered as a leading lady of minor '40s films, but a Broadway immortal, thanks to her performance as Lilli Vanessi/Katherine in the original 1948 production of Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate, Morison explained to the audience that she had chosen something appropriate for the evening's sex-reversal theme: "Brush Up Your Shakespeare," which she used to sit backstage and listen to "two very funny men" (Harry Clark and Jack Diamond) sing. She then sang the complete number with great panache and style, nailing every laugh. The ovation dwarfed the one that had greeted her entrance; the shouting, stomping and clapping went on for what seemed like minutes. 

Miraculously, this was followed by the biggest laugh of the evening. Julie White, who hosted the evening with The New Normal's Bebe Wood, strolled onstage to announce the closer for the first half: Norm Lewis, singing "Home" from The Wiz. "This next performer . . ." White said, " . . . is just fucked." (Lewis came through with a lovely performance.)

The show, directed and written by Robert Bartley, offered plenty of other show-stoppers, among them: Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Andy Kelso in a hilarious performance of "The History of Wrong Guys" from Kinky Boots; Robin de Jesús and six terrific dancers (including standout Marty Lawson), with "Prehistoric Man" from the 1949 movie version of On the Town; Beth Leavel with a brilliantly inventive "She Likes Basketball" from Promises, Promises; and Michael Berresse and Tony Yazbeck with a deeply touching and resonant "Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag" from Chicago, featuring the original Ann Reinking Fosse-based choreography. In the end, the evening raised an impressive (and record-breaking) $423,000. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

The Diva Who Laughs

(Brian Kellow, Performances, Crossover, Keeping it Local, Broadway, Musical Theater, Cabaret, Humor) Permanent link

Recently, on a Sunday afternoon, my partner and I walked into Mel's Burgers in our Columbia University neighborhood. In addition to having the greatest burgers on the West Side, Mel's is something of a sports bar. "Which game would you like to be seated next to?" asked the hostess when we walked in. "Um," said my partner, "I dunno. Do you have figure skating?"

I'm afraid this about sums up our degree of attachment to the world of sports, but we were of course keen to tune in on Super Bowl Sunday this year, because for the first time, the event would feature an opera singer — none other than soprano RENÉE FLEMING — singing the National Anthem. In the days that followed, we were frequently asked what we thought about her performance. My take was: slow beginning, odd, goopy arrangement. In the beginning, I experienced my familiar irritation with Fleming's refusal to sing English words simply and cleanly, without affectation, but I thought she dug in as it went on and finished up triumphantly. 

Then I was sent a YouTube clip of soprano/comedienne DOROTHY BISHOP, performing her spoof of Fleming's performance of the anthem. It's not the anthem at all, but a re-lyriced version of Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," which Fleming has performed in concert. "It must be a drag / If you don't love the flag," sang Bishop, launching into a wild scat section and then coming back with "It makes no difference if I'm black or white / I'm singing 'Oh say can you see' tonight!" Along the way, there are riffs on "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," too. It's a very funny — and not at all mean-spirited — takeoff on Fleming's ideas about singing jazz and pop music. I have never liked most of what Fleming has done in this area — I usually feel she is avoiding any real connection with the music in pursuit of what she considers "style" — but the odd thing about Bishop's performance is that it made me relax a bit about Fleming's pop side. It's obvious that Fleming loves this music, and Bishop somehow tapped into the star's immense likability factor. (There's also a strong resemblance between the two women — so much so that once, when Bishop got tired of being stuck in Met standing room, she jumped a parterre box seat and fended off an usher by telling him she was Renée Fleming.) New York audiences will have a chance to experience Bishop's take on Fleming when she brings her show The Dozen Divas to the Metropolitan Room, one of New York's top cabaret venues, on April 30 and May 5.

Bishop is a Yale-educated soprano who came to New York and enjoyed what she describes as "a successful, ten-year B-level career that wasn't going where I wanted it to go." She noticed that she was getting cast in comedies — she did dozens of Rosalindes and Fiordiligis, and she gradually began moving into musical-comedy cabaret, which is not the most remunerative of genres. "I saw that there was money headlining in the cruise ships," she recalls, "and so for a number of years, I made up my own Sarah Brightman show and did a pop-opera tribute — not necessarily to Sarah, but kind of copying her own style. I started throwing in a lot of comedy. I left the ships in 2011, burned out and frustrated artistically, and started to develop The Dozen Divas." The show featured Bishop's impersonations of Cher, Adele, Stevie Nicks and others, and for its run at the Manhattan night spot the Iguana, Bishop was nominated for a Broadway World Award for Best Musical Comedy Cabaret Performance. 

"Renée has that gorgeous spin that separates an A-level singer from a B-level singer. My voice probably has more metal, but hers is so pure and spinny. I wouldn't even try to imitate her opera singing. But people are sensitive about her — and about 'The Star Spangled Banner,' too. I think at the moment on YouTube I have fifty-five likes and forty hates. I left some of the bad comments up, but there were so many, with people writing stupid stuff. A lot of Vietnam vets said they were offended that I made fun of the National Anthem.

"Renée is, for some people, the highlight of my whole act," says Bishop. "I don't know her personally, and I'm not making fun of her fabulous, glorious opera singing. I have people who claim to be friends of hers and who have come to my show and say, 'She doesn't care.' Now when I was doing Sarah Palin, she sent some people, and they sat in the front row with arms crossed, not laughing at all. They did not laugh. I closed with a very funny parody of "Rose's Turn" — "Sarah's Turn" — you can imagine. Then I did sing-along Christmas carols with a Rudolph parody that ended with her shooting John McCain. Afterward, they were very sarcastic. They said, 'We're so happy we can go back and tell Sarah she has nothing to worry about.' I just smiled and said, 'Thank you for coming.'"

This July, Fleming herself will be reaching out to a new audience when she stars in Joe DiPietro and Garson Kanin's comedy Living on Love at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. spacer

BRIAN KELLOW

Staged Reading

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Keeping it Local, Broadway, Arts Journalism, New York City, Theater) Permanent link

There's something about a long career on Broadway that makes lots of people think that their experiences are worth putting down in book form; over the years, I've known rehearsal pianists, dressers, chorus boys and stage hands who were busily scribbling their memoirs, most of which never saw the light of day. Now, one of Broadway's respected press agents, SUSAN L. SCHULMAN, has succumbed to the temptation. The result, Backstage Pass to Broadway: True Tales from a Theatre Press Agent, has just been published by Heliotrope Books. In Schulman's case, her efforts have been worth it; she's written a funny, sometimes shocking book about the things she's seen on Broadway for the past forty-plus years. (She got her feet wet in 1970 with Applause, starring the famously dyspeptic LAUREN BACALL, something that probably would have had most fledgling press agents applying for the night shift at Howard Johnson's.) Schulman is admittedly star-struck; there's a gosh-gee-whiz quality to many of her anecdotes, but her book is best when she's chronicling bad behavior: DAVID MERRICK's young wife NATALIE, LESLEY ANNE WARREN and JOHN DEXTER come off worst. If only most people who work in the opera industry were half this candid about their experiences, my job would be a lot more fun. 

BRIAN KELLOW

The Pop Side

(Brian Kellow, Crossover, Keeping it Local, Broadway, Musical Theater, Theater, Cabaret) Permanent link

Anyone who wants a juicy demonstration of savvy, old-time show-biz razzle dazzle shouldn't think of missing Sin Twisters, the new club act starring ANITA GILLETTE and PENNY FULLER at Manhattan's popular theater-district nightspot 54 Below. I attended the opening on October 2. Sharply and confidently directed by BARRY KLEINBORT, Sin Twisters is frequently hilarious, frequently touching, and even more frequently awe-inspiring. Gillette and Fuller never attained top Broadway stardom, but they are two of the most respected and versatile actresses of their generation — what used to be called darlings of the theater. The show's title is a spoonerism — a treasured gag that runs through the show, adding to its infectious spirit. ("Pit it, Haul!" Gillette called out at one point to musical director PAUL GREENWOOD, whose stylish pianism and gorgeous vocals added immeasurably to the evening. I should probably admit here that I've always been a sucker for spoonerisms, "Ballulah Tankhead" being my own personal favorite.)

In this generously programmed act, both Gillette and Fuller showed crack comic timing and solid vocals, as they wove their way through a loose narrative that ticked off high points of their careers but never became stale or predictable. A raucous high point was Gillette's ultra-swacked rendition of "If I Were a Bell," from Guys and Dolls; she reached a stunning emotional peak with "Isn't He Something?" from Stephen Sondheim's Bounce, and the gorgeous "Once Upon a Time," from All American, which she sang with Fuller. (I've never known anyone of a certain age who didn't succumb to this lovely song). I had always considered "One Halloween" one of the junkier numbers from the 1970 musical Applause, a show that an Encores! concert presentation of a few years ago proved is beyond reviving. But in Fuller's expert hands (she received a Tony nomination for the role of Eve Harrington), it was magical — an example of a real artist transforming her mediocre material. In duet, Gillette and Fuller shone in "Little Me" and a medley of tunes from Cabaret; both actresses had their turn playing Sally Bowles on Broadway. The audience, which included SHELDON and MARGERY HARNICK, JOHN GLOVER, HARVEY EVANS, SONDRA LEE, MALCOLM GETS and LEROY REAMS, came away with a bracing sense of two women who have gotten the most out of their careers and still have many premium performing miles to go. They'll reprise Sin Twisters at Club 54 on October 9. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

Douce France

(Brian Kellow, Performances, Keeping it Local, New York City, Chanson) Permanent link

It's probably fair to say that the ever-broadening scope of song recitals in Manhattan owes a great deal to the New York Festival of Song. Under the guidance of artistic director Steven Blier and associate artistic director Michael Barrett, NYFOS has, over the years, built an intensely loyal audience with an imaginatively programmed series of concerts that at their best are both pithy and enormous fun. Blier, the series pianist and host, has a real knack for turning the group's performing space — most often Merkin Concert Hall on West Sixty-Seventh Street — into something with an intime nightclub feel. But it's a very in-the-know nightclub: Blier loves the thrill of musical discovery, loves to share his cleverly designed programs with his audience, which responds by hanging on every word of his savvy blend of erudition and plainspoken cool. 

On Tuesday, February 19, NYFOS presented a deeply satisfying program of French popular song, Jacques Brel & Charles Trénet: Fire and Fantasy. The ensemble was wonderful — Blier at the keyboard, plus guitarist Greg Utzig (who was sometimes a bit loud, throwing off the balance) and the marvelous accordionist Bill Schimmel. In addition to playing superbly (with no music in front of him all night long), Schimmel looked the part, as if Central Casting had come up with the ideal character actor to play a French accordionist in a Truffaut film. Tenor Philippe Pierce got things off to a stunning start with Brel's ever-accelerating "La Valse à Mille Temps." Pierce has a fine voice and sure rhythmic command, but in some of the evening's more soulful works he came up a bit short, lacking the French "lived-in" quality for a powerful song such as Brel's achingly poignant "Chanson des vieux amants."

In the second half, Brel gave way to Trénet. "Maybe if Irving Berlin and Mary Martin had had a baby they might have come out with Charles Trénet," said Blier, "but I doubt it." Here, Pierce's teammate, mezzo Marie Lenormand, gave what for me was one of the standout individual performances of the season, making magic out of "L'âme des poètes" (I won't soon forget the sublime way she landed on the word "artiste") and the famous "La mer," while showing great comic verve in her big finale with Pierce, "Grand-maman, c'est New York." 

At the end, Blier announced that the evening was something of a landmark — the fortieth anniversary of his first public performance. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

Striking a Pose

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Keeping it Local, Broadway, Cabaret) Permanent link

For a while, during her club act at 54 Below on January 24, Marin Mazzie looked like she might spend the evening circling without landing. She opened with a remembrance of her Illinois childhood, giving us a snapshot of a typical Saturday evening when her parents, cocktails at the ready, danced in front of the hi-fi to classic romantic ballads of the period such as "Tenderly." During this part of the evening, Mazzie seemed oddly "posed" and removed from the audience; she seemed to be in on a joke that she wasn't going to share with us, and it was hard to get a handle on where we might be heading. 

Fortunately, things picked up once she began to sing Top-40 hits from her own growing-up years. With excellent support from a band headed by her musical director Joseph Thalken, Mazzie gave killer renditions of schlocky '70s numbers such as the Partridge Family's "I Think I Love You," the Barbra Streisand–Paul Williams Gibson greeting-card romance "Evergreen" and Barry Manilow's "When Will I Hold You Again?" which she managed to make us believe is a pretty terrific song. Just as she was reaching an excellent performance peak, the evening seemed to end rather abruptly, leaving the audience feeling just slightly undernourished.

Mazzie is one of the most exciting singing actresses on the Broadway scene, and I'm always a little frustrated that, apart from Passion, she hasn't originated a show that was really worthy of her. (Her replacement-cast performance in Next to Normal, opposite her talented husband Jason Daniely, was one of the most electrifying turns I've seen in years.) Now I'd like to see her do a full-scale cabaret show on the order of those offered by the great Marilyn Maye — something that really lets us know who she is. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

Free to Be

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Listening, Keeping it Local, New York City, Theater) Permanent link

Why is it so difficult for some singers simply to be themselves onstage? It's fascinating how quickly we can pick up on a singer's discomfort. A poorly chosen program, a determination to stand back from the emotional content of the music, a tendency to joke around too much onstage, can all become a kind of distracting armor that prevents performers from fully showing themselves to us. Throughout her performing career, and in the many master classes she has taught around the country, Barbara Cook has advocated throwing off that armor. On October 18, when Carnegie Hall presented her in an eighty-fifth birthday concert, she demonstrated a lifetime of lessons learned. Her music director/pianists were Ted Rosenthal and Lee Musiker, and the show was scripted by David Thompson, produced by Jeff Berger and directed by Daniel Kutner. 

Cook has made many appearances at Carnegie over the years — the first being in 1961, with Leonard Bernstein. "Here I am again," she said when she padded onstage. "Blinked my eye — and eighty-five!" She then launched into a highly satisfying program, skipping some of her famous theater hits ("Vanilla Ice Cream," from She Loves Me, "They Were You," from The Fantasticks, "It's Not Where You Start," from Seesaw) in favor of a well-chosen collection of pop and jazz standards. In places, Cook's voice sounded drier than it has on past occasions, and now and then, from her seated position, she couldn't quite muster the support for an isolated high note, so that her vibrato widened in ways we aren't used to hearing. But for the most part she was in excellent voice, nailing stunning high notes in "Georgia on My Mind" and "When Sunny Gets Blue" and making a heartrending lament out of "Bye Bye Blackbird." There were a few miscalculations: Dan Hicks's country-flavored "list" song, "I Don't Want Love," is better suited to a performer who uses bolder, cruder strokes, and Musiker's arrangement of "I've Got You Under My Skin" undulated so much that the song itself got lost. But the almost-forgotten '30s ballad "If I Love Again" was pure, heartfelt magic, and "The Nearness of You" and "Makin' Whoopee" were all but flawless. At the concert's end, some surprise guest stars — John Pizzarelli, Jessica Molaskey, Sheldon Harnick, Susan Graham and Josh Groban — showed up to boost the birthday celebration by each doing a turn; the high point was Groban's cleanly sung performance of Stephen Sondheim's "Not While I'm Around." 

But it wasn't as much an evening about music-making or vocalizing as it was about honesty. Clearly, it took Cook many years to reach the point of exhibiting such ease onstage, so we shouldn't insult her by describing her art as "effortless." But it is a rare pleasure to listen to an artist who never forgets that her biggest job up there onstage is just letting us know who she is. spacer 


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Current Issue: October 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 4