Friday, July 27, 2012

cabaret review REBECCA LUKER, 54 Below, July 6

Composer Jerome Kern was a major influence on the beginning of Rebecca Luker's Broadway career as Luker's first New York show was a concert in 1985 of Kern's Music in the Air at Town Hall.  After getting noticed at that concert, Luker recorded several Kern tunes on some studio recordings and after appearing in the original Broadway casts of The Phantom of the Opera and The Secret Garden she received a Tony nomination for her performance in the Kern/Hammerstein 1994 Broadway revival of Show Boat.  So it is no surprise that for Luker's debut concert at the new cabaret spot 54 Below it was an evening dedicated completely to Kern.

Directed by Luker's husband Danny Burstein, the concert was a perfect balance of Luker's lush soprano voice combined with stories about Kern that included a bit of his history as well as information on the shows he worked on and lyricists he worked with.  And while many of the songs were lesser known Kern tunes, there wasn't one misstep, false note or moment that Luker didn't completely own.  Her voice was clear, bright with perfect punctuation, making each and every lyric clearly understandable.

"Can't Help Singing" is a lovely song that set the tone for the evening, Luker was here to sing and nothing was going to stop her.  The comical tune "Saturday Night" is a humorous patter song with a funny tune to match the lyrics and Rebecca had no problem alternating between the serious songs and the comical ones in the set list like this one.  A phenomenal pairing of Show Boat's "Bill" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" was simply stunning.  The comical song from Sweet Adeline "My Husband's First Wife" provided a very humorous moment in the evening.  Luker followed this with the jaunty and jazzy "The Folks Who Live on the Hill".  "I'm Old Fashioned" and "The Way You Look Tonight" are two of Kern's most well known songs and Luker's performance of both was spot on.  Roberta's "I'll Be Hard to Handle" gave Luker another chance to wrap her stirring soprano voice around some witty lyrics by Otto Harbach set to a lovely Kern melody. One of Kern's last songs, set to lyrics by Dorothy Fields many years after his death, "April Fooled Me " gave Luker another chance to show her impeccable skills and her interpretation of the song was sweet, simple and a simply lovely end to the concert before Luker came back for two encores.  Those encores included a soaring version of "Why Was I Born?" and a vibrant "All the Things You Are."

Pianist and Musical Director Joseph Thalken was joined by Dick Sarpola on Bass and together they provided the perfect compliment to Luker's lush voice.

The acoustics at 54 Below are so clear and the setting so intimate that I can't wait to go back again to see another Broadway performer in an evening like the spectacular one that Luker gave us.

Rebecca's official website

54 Below website

Monday, July 23, 2012

theatre review CLOSER THAN EVER, Off Broadway, July 5

Musical revues aren't usually my cup of tea.  A series of songs with no story to combine them just doesn't work for me.  However, I've always been a fan of the cast recording of the 1989 Off Broadway review Closer Than Ever so I didn't want to miss the new production being staged at the York Theatre Company on the Upper East Side.  I guess the main difference between this review and most others is that the songs that Richard Maltby, Jr and David Shire have created are story songs that can easily stand alone but when combined together make the entire show into something actually greater than the sum of the individual songs.

Maltby and Shire have actually never had a hit together on Broadway.  They were behind Baby and Big, both of which had very short Broadway runs.  Now Maltby did conceive and direct another Broadway revue Ain't Misbehaven which he won a Tony for as well as directed Fosse and provided lyrics to Miss Saigon and Song and Dance and Shire has written many film scores including winning an Oscar for his song for the movie Norma Rae.  So, they have had successes individually but never together on Broadway.   Another revue of their songs Starting Here, Starting Now was successful and, like Closer Than Ever, both shows include some songs that were included in or cut from some of the various musicals they've written together.

The songs in this show cover the multiple aspects of normal, everyday life - but lives that have been lived, this isn't a show that a 20 year old would quite understand since most of the songs are self contained stories that show the changes that each character has experienced or the personal feelings they have, told from the perspective of various characters in their late 30's to early 50's.  The songs tells the stories of mostly middle aged people as they reflect back on the choices they made and also touch on various other issues like the struggles of working couples, divorce, unrequited love and how close friendships change over the years.  The various group numbers in the show allow for some excellent harmonies.  These include the opening number "Doors," "Next Time" and the closing title number.  Shire's music is varied yet bright and simple but still completely memorable while Maltby's lyrics are poignant and sophisticated.

George Dvorsky, Christiane Noll, Sal Viviano and Jenn Colella
The four member cast brings considerable skill, charm and life lessons to the various roles they portray.  While all four are excellent, it is the women who truly shine.  Jenn Colella who has unfortunately starred in a couple of Broadway flop musicals is the stand out here.  She has a rich, strong and clear voice and easily handles the comical, sexual and dramatic beats of the characters she plays. Her "Miss Byrd" is exceptional and her duet with the bass player, "Back on Bass" is pure sensual joy.  Christiane Noll gets the more serious songs and her take on both "Life Story" and "Patterns" are gorgeous and heartfelt, but she also gets to show her humorous side with the comical gem "The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster and The Mole."   Together they both bring a lovely touch and considerable depth to the act two duet of "It's Never That Easy" and "I've Been Here Before."

George Dvorsky and Sal Viviano are the two men in the cast and while they both get plenty of time to show what they're capable of, the songs for the men, while good, aren't quite as exceptional as the ones for the women.  Still Dvorsky and Viviano add a nice heartfelt touch, skill and personality to "What Am I Doin?" "One of the Good Guys," "Father of Fathers," and "If I Sing."

Matlby directed the production and he does an exceptional job of creating various different playing spaces on the small stage.   There is very little repetition of the staging which when you only have four singers, a pianist and a bass player and a small space says a lot of the creativity of Maltby.  Of course since he is also the lyricist that gives him a slight edge on ensuring that his lyrics are staged the way he wants the story he wrote to be told.  The cast isn't mic'd and even though the space is small it sometimes still creates a slight problem in being able to hear them clearly, especially if they turn slightly away from where you're sitting. This is really my only downside to this lovely production.

The run has been extended again through August 25th, though Noll and Colella will only be with the production for a couple more weeks as they are both in the new Broadway musical Chaplin that begins performances on August 21.

A cast recording has been made and will be released shortly.  This production of Closer Than Ever is one not to be missed.

Official York Theatre Site

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

theatre review HARVEY, Broadway, June 30

Casting an A list TV name in a Broadway show is something that has been going on for years.  Usually it is something that happens when a show is waning, ticket sales are down and the producers do whatever they can to get some buzz and lure in the tourist crowd.  So, it is refreshing that the producers of the Broadway revival of Harvey scheduled this production to coincide with Jim Parsons' down time from the hit show The Big Bang Theory.  I'm sure the fact that this is a not for profit limited run production from the Roundabout Theatre Company made it easier to work around his schedule, as it isn't like the run could be extended since he has to return to his tv show.  With a lovely performance from Parsons and an excellent ensemble cast it is just too bad that the timing of Parson's availability made it open after the Tony eligibility deadline as I'm sure this show would have received several nominations. 

Now Parsons did appear on Broadway last season in the revival of The Normal Heart in a small supporting role as well as lead the ensemble in a reading of the play June Moon at the Roundabout last Summer.  And while the central character of Edwin P. Dowd he plays in Harvey is just as eccentric and odd as the part he plays in The Big Bang Theory, Parsons brings the appropriate amount of charm, caring and love to Dowd which is an almost complete opposite of the tv role of "Sheldon" that has won him two Emmy Awards. 

Jim Parson and "Harvey"
Harvey was written by Mary Chase in 1944 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  Focusing on Dowd and his sister Veta and set in a small town, Elwood also has a seemingly imaginary friend Harvey who is, according to Elwood, a six foot tall rabbit.  Elwood feels the need to introduce Harvey to everyone he meets, and why shouldn't he? Wouldn't you introduce your best friend to people you come in contact with?  Of course Veta fears the embarrassment of this not just for herself but also for the reputation of her daughter Myrtle Mae who is at the marrying age.  So Veta decides the best thing for everyone involved would be to have Elwood committed at the local asylum and given a treatment to make him "normal."  The play is an interesting one as not only is it an expertly crafted comedy but one that touches on the serious theme of "what is sanity?" 

Parsons is giving an understated and perfectly measured performance as Elwood.  He lovingly captures the charm, passion and sheer happiness of this man who wants to have a connection with everyone he meets.  But we also believe that it is Harvey that has made him into this man, a man who wants to truly live life and while some may think he is crazy to believe his best friend is a giant rabbit we come to learn that it is most likely the death of his mother that triggered this new relationship in his life.  But maybe not as while Harvey seems only to be imaginary, we start to believe in him and when the play ends I believe most people in the audience would say he wasn't imaginary just invisible.

Charles Kimbrough, Jessica Hecht and Jim Parsons
Parsons is known for playing the outsider in his tv show but the outsider he plays here is one who desperately wants to be in, unlike Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory who would never want to be in that crowd.  And while the voice and mannerisms are similar between the two characters, after all it is the same actor playing both, the similarities end there.  Parsons has such warmth and compassion in this role that makes you not only wish he was your friend but that you could hang out with him and Harvey at their local bar some night. 

As Veta, Jessica Hecht has the appropriate range of emotions one would expect from a woman with a brother like Elwood particularly in the last act when she has to make a very important decision about Elwood's future.  Her crazy rants, rubber facial expressions and wide range of emotions are in perfect opposite to Parsons performance which is exactly what is needed and goes back to that theme of what is sanity and could the person we believe to be insane actually be the sane one?

Carol Kane and Jim Parsons
Charles Kimbrough is the head doctor at the asylum and when his wife played by Carol Kane comes to visit him the scene she shares with Parsons is touching, lovely and humorous.  Kimbrough starts to believe in the possibility of Harvey's existence even while trying everything he can not to and the scenes when he is trying to get away from Harvey are not only well crafted in how Chase wrote them but also staged and directed expertly with Kimbrough literally going insane in front of our eyes.  The asylum is staffed by Morgan Spector, Holly Fain and Duane Wilson and I especially liked Wilson as the orderly who tries to run the show in a brisk and brusque fashion and can't believe that the people around him start believing in the possibility of Harvey actually existing. 

Scott Ellis directs the production perfectly with the appropriate shades of comedy and seriousness but always with a focus on the craziness that the events of the struggle between the sane and insane can create.  David Rockwell has created a large and lovely revolving set design that perfectly combines the two sets and includes some great rabbit designs embedded into the wallpaper of Elwood and Veta's house.  Jane Greenwood's costume designs are top notch with crisp period perfect designs.

Harvey is a well crafted comedy and this production features a top notch ensemble cast with some great performances including Parsons, Hecht, Kimbrough and Kane.   It runs through August 5th and is not to be missed.

Official Roundabout Site

Clips from the production: interview with Jim Parsons:

Friday, July 6, 2012

cabaret review BRIAN D'ARCY JAMES, 54 Below, June 29

Brian d'Arcy James has appeared in numerous Broadway musicals and plays, including receiving two Tony nominations, as well as having roles on various tv shows including last season's Broadway themed series Smash.  However, after attending one of Brian's cabaret shows during his week run at the hot new cabaret spot 54 Below, it seems deep down he really wants to be an 80's pop star rocker.  Backed by an impressive 7 piece band and two back-up vocalists, Brian really rocked out and had his Broadway fan based audience in the palm of his hands throughout the 75 minute show -and he didn't even sing a single show tune.

Titled "Under the Influence," the theme of his show was all about the music of his teen years that he was influenced by.  In between songs he spoke about how these songs spoke to him and made him who he is today.  He also told many funny stories, including mentioning that he skipped a school basketball game, with his parents claiming there was a "family emergency" so he could attend his first stadium concert.  That Billy Joel concert with the combination of Joel and the size of the venue and the other pop songs of his youth that he heard either on 45's played in his basement or on cassette tapes he played in his car basically opened his eyes to the world.

Billy Joel obviously had the biggest influence on him and his delivery of three of Joel's songs “Worse Comes to Worst,” "Everybody Loves You" and a quiet, yet emotional “She’s Got a Way” were flawless.  But other bands and singers of that era also spoke to James including Steve Winwood, Squeeze, Genesis, James Taylor, Carly Simon and even Bobby Sherman.  He managed to make songs by those groups and singers his own with a sharp focus on the lyrics. 

The Winwood song "Take It As It Comes" opened the show and set the tone for the evening and I especially liked his take on the Genesis hit “That’s All" as well as Squeeze's "Tempted."   His crisp and clear delivery of the lyrics for these songs was especially effective in getting the message of the songs that spoke to him across. Broadway performer Julia Murney joined him for an inspired and extremely fun take on the Taylor/Simon hit "Mockingbird."  And even though Sherman's "Julie Do Ya Love Me"" is a 70's song that in my opinion should be left in the past, Brian had a fun time turning it into an audience sing along claiming "come on you know you want to join in" when he got to the chorus.

Brian rocks out at 54 Below
But Brian also noted that he was "down" with the songs of today and he gave a truly inspired performance of Adele's "I'll Be Waiting" which I thought was the highlight of the concert.  Another more recent artist, Gabe Dixon, was represented with the rocking "You and Only You." But he showed that rocking out wasn't the only thing he could pull off as his delivery of the solemn and soulfoul Kate McGarrigle "Saratoga Summer Song" that Brian saw McGarrigle's son Rufus Wainwright perform in concert was the perfect end to the evening.  

Jame's infectious enthusiasm and the power and drive of his voice propelled the material and with his personal interjections you really understood how this music made him who he is today.  The fact that the night we saw his show was also Brian's birthday added a nice personal touch to the evening that ended with everyone singing Happy Birthday to him as his wife and daugher joined him on the stage.   Another personal but very humorous moment in the show was when Brian told the story of how Matthew Sklar, the 19 year old assistant conductor for the Broadway musical Titanic at the time, told him one day how he had a dream about him the night before and how that dream was about Brian's theme song.  He said that over the past dozen years whenever he'd run into Sklar that he would always ask him to sing the theme song to him and how he decided to take the opportunity of his cabaret debut to actually let us hear it.  It was a truly inspired 30 second song that included Brian doing a very funny dance.  It was so inspired that when the audience wanted to hear it again, the band immediately jumped right in for an encore.

Dan Lipton led the power house band that featured impressive turns on guitar, saxophone and horns and Brian also sang a lovely and touching original song that he wrote with Lipton, "Don't Hold It Against Me." The back-up singers for his show were co-stars from Brian's former Broadway shows, Haven Burton who was in Shrek with Brian and Clarke Thorell who appeared in Titanic with him.  After the almost SRO audience and the joy and skill that James showed, it wouldn't surprise me to see Brian return to 54 Below later in the year with a new show.

And speaking of 54 Below, which just officially opened three weeks ago, the venue is the perfect place to see someone perform.  It is a large enough space to include a nice sized crowd but intimate enough to have a personal interaction with the performer with every seat in the room being less than 30 feet from the stage.  And even though there is a food and drink minimum on top of the ticket price, I found the food prices to be not too crazy and the portion sizes to be fine.   The quality of the food and the wait staff is on par with the high marks for the sound and lighting design in the space.   All of this combined in a glorious space makes 54 Below THE place to see a Broadway performer perform outside of an actual Broadway theatre.

Official Brian d'arcy James Site

Official 54Below Site

Rehearsal clip and interview for his concert at Below 54:

Brian talks about his Below 54 show:

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.