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Grand Dames

Good Comedy, Beautiful Music, and Bad Sex!

The Siegels sample the cabaret smorgasbord on Restaurant Row.

By New York City

Elaine Brier(Photo: Michael Portantiere)
Elaine Brier
(Photo: Michael Portantiere)
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a great title has got to be worth the same. Elaine Brier's new musical comedy extravaganza at Don't Tell Mama is called Jirque du Soleil, a title that represents the absolute height of sophomoric inspiration--and that's a compliment. Though some people use the term "sophomoric humor" pejoratively, it merely describes a certain style of comedy that's youthful and not terribly sophisticated but definitely more complex than, say, "freshman hijinks." Jirque du Soleil is especially clever in capturing the lowbrow attitude that goes along with the word "jerk." At the same time, it also mocks the hoity-toity French (actually Quebecois) snobbery of the title Cirque du Soleil.

We had high expectations for the show, based not only on the title but also on Brier's well-earned reputation for musical comedy on the piano bar circuit, so we arrived at Don't Tell Mama ready to be entertained. But, as a famous comic on his deathbed once said: "Dying is easy; comedy is hard." Brier's hour-long act, while uneven, has its share of laughs and is sometimes genuinely hilarious.

The most impressive aspect of the show is that Brier and John McMahon (musical director-pianist and leader of the "Band du Soleil") wrote so much of it. In fact, they composed the highlight of the piece: a song/monologue that tells the story of Brier's lamented relationship with a longtime lover of Vietnamese ancestry, "I Just Wasn't Vietnamese." We were split over her other big number, a comic explanation of Don McLean's "American Pie." Using props à la Ross Perot, Brier attempts to decipher the meaning of this iconic, famously long pop tune. Barbara felt that the bit added up to a lot of empty comedy calories while Scott found it an ambitious, tasty slice of humor. (So, one of us was a "jirk," but whom?)

The number "Seriously Funny" (McMahon-Brier) has a few sparks but ultimately doesn't catch comic fire; director Jay Rogers should be wary of bits and songs that are like Saturday Night Live skits in that they are based on great ideas but don't fully capitalize on their potential. Even the title tune, with music and lyrics by McMahon, has a catchy melody but fails to offer a series of refreshing comic lines. Happily, even when the show isn't particularly amusing, it is never boring.

Brier is distinctive in two ways: She always wears hats, and she has a uniquely whiny voice that can grate on sensitive ears. Her voice is first and foremost an instrument of musical comedy, so it only annoys when she isn't being funny. Whether or not her sound bothers you might well be the barometer of how much you're enjoying her act; test your own comic barometer at Mama's on May 24 or 31 at 9pm.

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Parker Scott
Parker Scott
Formal and fabulous, Parker Scott's Awaiting You--also at Don't Tell Mama--is yet another milestone in the astonishing arc of this young singer's career.

This is the third show of Scott's that we've seen. The first was a mediocre mess, brightened only by the promise of the singer's beautiful voice. In his next effort, a genuine showman emerged. Almost everything we complained about in reference to the first show, including Scott's wooden demeanor, had been addressed: He displayed a sense of humor, he picked better material, and he interpreted it with elan.

Now, in this third show, Scott performs with confidence, style, and exuberance. Aided by director Gerry Geddes he has put together a dynamic act that takes full advantage of his vocal skills. There are gorgeous arrangements by musical director-arranger-pianist Dick Gallagher, with a cello added to the mix (exquisitely played by Rubin Kodheli). All of this creates such a rich sound that you may fear the cover charge will be raised before the show is over.

If you take away a second-tier rendition of John Bucchino's great song "Taking the Wheel" (done better by David Campbell), a strange encore choice, and some awkward, flowery patter, the show would be virtually flawless. "Blackberry Winter" (McGlohon/Wilder) is a romantic torch song achingly performed by Scott. We've heard countless versions of "How Deep is the Ocean?" (Irving Berlin) but Scott's straight-on approach goes right to the heart, and he delivers power ballads like "With One More Look at You" (Ascher-Williams) with a unique combination of emotional control and vocal excess that leaves you breathless. Parker Scott has three shows remaining on June 22, 23, and 30, all at 6pm.

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The cast of Sex! The Musical
The cast of Sex! The Musical
Finally, there is Sex! The Musical at Danny's Skylight Room. The house was full the night we were there. That's no surprise (sex sells!), but there is a lesson to be learned from this wildly over-the-top fiasco.

If you ever doubted the importance of a director for a cabaret show, check out this one. Every number overshoots the mark, and you can't always blame the material, since many of the selections are cabaret staples: Christine Lavin's "Good Thing He Can't Read My Mind," Tom Lehrer's "Masochism Tango," Ben Schaecter and Dan Kael's "He Knew How to Read Me," etc. The only numbers that actually work are presented in a restrained manner that gives the performers a chance to establish a credible comic tone. Ironically, one of the highlights of the program is the most outlandish selection of all: A bestiality song titled "Bessie" (Joe Kerr), about a man's love for his cow, is delivered with a certain slyness that is otherwise nowhere to be found in the show.

Look at Naked Boys Singing and you'll realize that, while the entire cast of that musical is nude throughout, there really isn't anything vulgar about it because it is well written, well acted, and (of prime importance) performed with restraint. Though the actors in Sex! are fully clothed, the show reeks of vulgarity. Conceived by David Coffman, it is destined for Off-Broadway and theaters in other parts of the country. Coffman would do well to have a long talk with director Ovi Vargas and insist that the show be toned down. Cast members Sebastian Arcelus, Ron Butler, Catherine Carpenter, and Julie Reiber may well be talented but it's hard to tell when they have been directed to overact so outlandishly.

Sex! The Musical can be seen at 11pm every Saturday at Danny's from May 25 thru June 15.


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