There are essentially two schools of cabaret performance art. One is the revelation of personality, that intimate sharing of oneself with an audience best exemplified by the likes of Andrea Marcovicci and Charles Cermele. The second school is the presentation of a character or characters that create an intimate theatrical experience. Proponents of this approach range from Tommy Femia as Judy Garland to Michel Hermon singing the Edith Piaf oeuvre. And now, add someone else to this latter group of cabaret performers: B.D. Wong, who recently completed a series of three sold out performances at Joe's Pub in a show called Wailin' on Pop that had the provocative subtitle "The Unexpected Drama of Pop Music."
Until recently, Wong was perhaps best known for his starring role in M. Butterfly on Broadway. Then came his role of Linus in the Broadway revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, and theatergoers suddenly realized that Wong could sing. In his show at Joe's Pub, he combined his acting and singing talents to exquisite effect in an act he himself conceived and wrote. Focusing on contemporary pop tunes that were written for the radio rather than the stage, Wong nevertheless found their theatrical underpinnings. Time after time, he took a song and gave it not only voice, but also character. We mean that literally; Wong created different characters and then had each person he invented sing a different song in a different scenario, from Paul Simon's "The Homeward Boxer" to Sting's "Seven Days." In essence, these pop tunes were thereby transformed into a series of one-act musicals.
The variety of characters Wong created was nearly matched by the multitude of musical styles he embraced. From Tracy Chapman to Billy Joel to Macy Gray, this actor/singer displayed a range of skills one rarely gets to see on any stage, be it in a theater or a nightclub. Nor does one often get to hear so many sophisticated arrangements in a cabaret show. Orchestrator Curtis Moore and music director Dan Lipton came up with fresh settings of familiar songs, played by a five-piece backup band. In particular, Carly Simon's "That's The Way I've Always Heard It Should Be" was heartbreakingly underscored with a cello, hauntingly played by Laura Bontrager. Later, Wong noted: "There's always room for a cello."
There's always room for improvement, as well. Not every song Wong performed was worthy of the effort. Then, again, our own prejudice is for the Great American Songbook; some of the tunes he chose to theatricalize just weren't up to that "standard, " if you know what we mean. But when he did chose the right song--and he did so often enough--Wong galvanized the audience and these critics. By way of example, his rendition of "Karen by Night" (Jill Sobule) was such a dramatic, passionate tour de force that it could readily stand as a Broadway show's eleven o'clock number.
Wong is not a charismatic stage personality who glows with the aura of stardom. Rather, he's a chameleon with the kind of talent that lasts.