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

Brooklyn Tapestry

(Brian Kellow, Performances, Broadway, Musical Theater, New York City) Permanent link

Beautiful, the new musical about the early years of Carole King, isn't much of a show, but it passes by pleasantly, and by the end of the evening, you don't feel that your time has been wasted. In a funny way, it's like some of King's most famous songs — it deals with some messy emotions, but it does so in a way that's rather becalmed.

The show takes the young Carole (née Klein) from her days as a precocious student at Queens College, when she has her first taste of success writing songs for doo-wop groups in the 1950s and '60s, through her loving but volatile marriage to her collaborator Gerry Goffin, to her emergence as a star singer–songwriter with the multiple Grammy-winning album Tapestry. (Is there anyone who didn't own this LP back in 1972?) There's a generous helping of King's hits along the way, and several by Goffin and King's close friends, the songwriting team of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. The numbers are neatly staged by director Marc Bruni and particularly by choreographer Josh Prince (who help turns "On Broadway" into a show-stopper), but what keeps the show earthbound is the book by Douglas McGrath. From the early scenes, which are reminiscent of the hackneyed old movie composer biopics from the '40s and '50s, McGrath's script listlessly rolls by, feeling like an outline that he couldn't summon the energy to develop. There are some nice individual lines, and they are given a good spin by Jake Epstein as Gerry Goffin, Anika Larsen as Cynthia Weil, Jarrod Spector as Barry Mann and, most of all, by Jessie Mueller as Carole King. ("I have the right amount of body, it's just not organized properly," complains the young Carole.) Publisher Don Kirshner (Jeb Brown) is a device, not a character, and Liz Larsen works much too hard as King's self-involved mother. Most of the big scenes are under-written, including the one in which the two couples' problems come to the surface over a strip poker game, and many of the moments dealing with marital discord seem strained and a little trivial, like an old '70s sitcom that decides to go all dramatic with an episode on infidelity.

But Jessie Mueller, like Hugh Jackman in The Boy from Oz a few years ago, works magic with her material. It might seem risky to build a big musical around a menschy woman who never loses her equilibrium, but Mueller so fully inhabits King's Brooklyn-girl-niceness that she ennobles her shaky vehicle. Her charm is never forced; she gives the show a quiet but absorbing center. 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

Willkommen, Bienvenue

(Brian Kellow, Performances, New York City, Cabaret) Permanent link

K. T. Sullivan and Karen Kohler rolled the dice and won: they presented their smartly conceived cabaret show Vienna to Weimar on February 24 — Oscar night — at the Triad on West Seventy-second Street. By a few minutes into the program, it was doubtful that anyone in the audience worried about missing Seth MacFarlane's opening monologue. 

Vienna to Weimar begins reassuringly, with Sullivan offering Rudolf Sieczynski's "Wien, Wien nur du allein," English words by Kim Gannon. (Gannon is one of my favorite trivia subjects: he wrote the words for some awfully good popular songs, including Max Steiner's "It Can't Be Wrong," taken from the 1942 Bette Davis film Now, Voyager, and the Christmas classic "I'll Be Home for Christmas." He deserves to be mentioned oftener than he is.) Then Sullivan lit into a delightful version of Fledermaus's "Mein Herr Marquis" (including the English words by Howard Dietz), hitting all her comic marks with ease and grace; she has a wonderful self-mocking quality that lands consistently with the audience. With Kohler, Sullivan also dusted off "Wenn die beste Freundin" (When the Special Girlfriend) and "Maskulinum-Femininum," both by Mischa Spoliansky and Marcellus Schiffer, revealing them as the sophisticated, subversive gems that they are. It fell to Kohler to cover the Weimar section of the waterfront and convey most of the spoken history lesson to the audience, which contrasted effectively with Sullivan's lighter approach. And although Sullivan didn't get near the chilling fury that an artist such as Nina Simone can bring to the Brecht–Weill "Pirate Jenny," she did manage to make that song uniquely her own. After spinning through a fine group of Friedrich Hollaender numbers, including the choice "Illusions," both women brought the evening to a memorable close with Leonard Cohen's "Take This Waltz," from 1967, and Franz Lehár's "Merry Widow Waltz." Jed Distler was the evening's excellent musical director. 

As New York's cabaret scene continues its quiet erosion, K. T. Sullivan is one of its enduring delights. 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: April 2014 — VOL. 78, NO. 10