The Duplex on Christopher Street is suddenly attracting some of the best singers in cabaret. The club's new programmer and publicist, Phillip Geoffrey Bond, has devised a series of shows that give quality performers a reason to visit the Village by the busload, and there is plenty of reason for audiences to follow. Bond's most recent creation is Dead Divas, a tribute (of sorts) to famous deceased singers and the songs for which they were known. The show is extremely flawed--we'll get to that momentarily--but the bountiful mix of talented performers involved makes for a tasty musical stew. You might not like all of the ingredients, and the seasoning may be off, but you have to admire the variety of taste sensations.
Dead Divas is performed without narration or any significant patter: The audience is expected to recognize the identity of each dead diva through her association with the song she performs. That's no problem when the song is "Fever" (Peggy Lee) or "Rose's Turn" (Ethel Merman), but it's quite another matter to expect a young audience to know that Eileen Farrell was famous for her rendition of "I Got a Right to Sing the Blues." A little historical patter, sprinkled here and there, would make the evening far more engaging and would free the audience to focus on the songs themselves, rather than wonder who is being celebrated. The lack of patter and structure also leads to an abrupt finale; the show simply ends without a natural, satisfying conclusion.
Of course, in any compilation show of this kind, it's hard to establish a consistent level of performance. Doing so becomes far more difficult when the pianist hired to play for nine different singers performing in nine very different styles is not up to the task. Hampered by this pianist--whom we shall leave nameless--many of the singers were at a disadvantage at the performance we attended. Luckily for Julie Reyburn, she brought her guitar and covered the Janis Joplin hit "Me and Bobby McGee" with fire and feeling. Also impressive was Audrey Lavine, who managed to overcome the Eileen Farrell identity crisis with a wailing version of "I Got a Right to Sing the Blues" and brought off an elegant take on "These Foolish Things," celebrating Connee Boswell.
Another highlight was Lisa Asher's medley of Patsy Cline songs; Asher has a beautiful sound that she mixes with a country cry in the soundboard of her throat, and out comes perfection. The most memorable moment of the evening, however, occurred right at the top of the show: Jarrod Cafaro entered in a skimpy outfit that the cast of Naked Boys Singing would have admired and sang "A Call From the Vatican" from the musical Nine, a tune made middling-famous by Anita Morris. Strutting his stuff while singing in a scintillating high tenor, Cafaro gave such an exceptional performance that it hardly mattered if you knew the song or the diva who originally sang it. He was the show. Period.
Some of the other performers who brought their considerable talents downtown to The Duplex for this celebration were Kristy Cates, David Sabella, and Marcus Simeone. Phil Bond himself briefly took part as a comic foil, starting to sing certain divas' signature songs only to learn that the ladies in question are still alive. It's a cute idea but, like the show itself, not fully fleshed out. Dead Divas continues at The Duplex every Saturday at 8pm through June 29.