Friday, July 6, 2012

cabaret review STEVEN ZUMBO, Don't Tell Mama, June 28

The New York cabaret scene is rather large, with a range of performers from Broadway names like Elaine Stritch, night club staples like Marilyn Maye and Andrea Marcovicci all the way down to the "starving artists" who perform at cabarets when they aren't auditioning for a Broadway show or waiting tables at a restaurant.  The scene also comprises clubs that seat around a couple of hundred patrons like Feinstein's at the Regency Hotel and the just launched club 54 Below to large venues where cabaret "names" sometimes perform that seat over a thousand people like Town Hall, as well as smaller clubs where virtually unknown people appear that seat around 50 people. 

But I believe that the biggest group of "cabaret" performers aren't any of the type that I mention above but just people who have day jobs but also a desire to perform.  So a couple of times a year they book a date or series of dates at one of the smaller clubs in town and perform their show for their friends and family and other fans they've collected over the years.  These types of performers are the staple of the New York cabaret scene.

One such performer is Steven Zumbo.  Steven isn't out their auditioning every week to land his big break on Broadway or looking for a recording contract, but is a guy with a day job who likes to sing, and over the past 15 or so years he regularly performs a set of shows about two or three times a year.  He also has gotten the attention of some "names" in the cabaret world like Julie Wilson, who I saw at one of Steven's shows last year. Now, full disclosure, Steven is one of my best friends, so I know a lot more about him and have a close relationship with him but feel I can review his show, just like I review everything else we see, with complete fairness. So here goes.

Steven is a naturally funny person but he also loves to sing ballads, which when not combined correctly can be a bit uneven and out of balance.  For about 10 years now, Steven has been performing at Don't Tell Mama's with his musical director Gerry Dieffenbach at the piano and under the direction of Helen Baldassare.  He had various musical directors and directors before then, but with Dieffenbach and Baldassare, Zumbo has found a perfect balance of tone between the comic and dramatic.  Steven often mentions at the top of his shows that he never uses a "theme" for his shows, preferring to be "theme less" instead and he often always says that the evening will be a combination of "hijinks and tomfoolery."  And while Steven perfectly captures the humor in the songs and there are often many comical songs and moments in his shows that Zumbo excels at, it is Steven's delivery of ballads that often make the most impact.

Zumbo started his show off with the humorous cabaret staple, "It's All About Me" which features some humorous lyrics and rhymes as well as a very funny ending that spoofs the succession of "for me's" in "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy.  He followed this with a song that I haven't heard in a long time, "That's Entertainment," and I was taken by how well the song is written and how specific the lyrics are, something I hadn't remembered from hearing this song so many years ago.  Steven had no problem with the delivery of the lyrics.

One of the highlights of the evening was the perfect pairing of "A Quiet Thing" from Flora, the Red Menace and "There Won't Be Trumpets" from Anyone Can Whistle.  While the message of these songs is about the same thing, that when something major happens in your life there aren't always fireworks or trumpets that blare when the event happens, the combination of the two songs was not only theatrical, but so simple and understated that it seemed completely natural that they should have always been combined.  Steven's quiet and direct delivery of the lyrics was the perfect compliment to the lovely arrangement.

For the past few years Steven has added in a "Broadway Backwards" sequence in his show when he sings songs from Broadway shows that are usually sung by women.  He mentions how songs like this are performed in a benefit every year by the Broadway community.   For his show he sang three songs that are usually sung by women (though the earlier pairing of "A Quiet Thing" and "There Won't Be Trumpets" could have also been placed in this section of the show since they are also sung by women in those shows.)  He first gave a song that is rarely heard, "When I'm Drunk I'm Beautiful" from the flop show Prettybelle.  Sung by Angela Lansbury in that show, Zumbo had no problem making this song his own.  He followed this with "I Got Lost In His Arms" from Annie Get Your Gun, and his understated delivery of the song was stunning and perfectly got across the message of the joy of finding the one you love.  He ended the sequence with "What Did I Have That I Don't Have?" from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever that had the perfect balance of internal monologue and full out Broadway belting with Zumbo nailing every moment from the simple and quiet beginning to the big belting notes throughout.

Zumbo is a funny guy and he and Dieffenbach are the co-founders of "ERQS" - Equal Rights for Questionable Songs - a group that really only exists to provide a moment in Steven's shows for him to sing hit songs from the past that usually have very funny lyrics.  For this concert the ERQS moment spotlights a trilogy of Cher hits that included "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves," "Bang, Bang" and "Half Breed."   It was fast and funny with Steven making sure to stress the inane lyrics in the songs.   He also threw a little Cher impersonation in as well.  It is moments like this as well as the personal funny stories he tells which provide a natural humorous component to his shows which is more realistic and less forced then in the past when Steven would read funny emails between songs.

Many of the songs in this show were ones Steven had performed before including a lovely pairing of "Steady, Steady" and "I'm Old Fashioned" that features an arrangement that perfectly combines the two songs into one.  Two ballads he has sung before "I Don't Go Shopping For Love" and The Maury Yeston song "I Had a Dream About You" are both beautiful and Zumbo knows how exactly how to sing these songs, especially the Yeston piece which he sings in a lovely and quiet but direct way that stresses the message of the song.  The lovely "Circle Game" provided a nice duet moment for Zumbo and Dieffenbach.  A song that Steven has performed many times, the humorous "Shakespeare Lied" from the flop show How Now, Dow Jones is one that he knows exactly how to sing, milking the humorous lyrics and getting every nuance in the rhyme scheme to the fullest extent possible.  Steven brought back the Laura Nero anthem "Save the Country" that he sung in the past, this time as a rallying call to the Gay Marriage movement, but the repetition of the song's lyrics make it into a song that really goes nowhere and the arrangement fell apart toward the end with the repetition of the title lyric over and over again.  Fortunately this was really the only downside to the evening.

Steven ended the show with two new songs to his repertoire "Say Yes" from 70, Girls 70 and "Applause" from Applause.  Both of these songs are big, brassy and moving with simple yet specific messages and Zumbo delivered them with a drive and passion that he exhibits in all of his songs. 

Steven has a natural joy in the way he sings and that joy easily spreads to the audience. He has a lovely range as well from quiet, introspective songs to big and bold Broadway showstoppers.  His flexible voice and simple delivery make every song come across as natural and unforced which when all combined make him into a natural performer and entertainer.  The next time Zumbo appears at Don't Tell Mama's make sure you don't miss it.

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