When it comes to variety, the folks at Kellogg's have got nothing on New York cabaret. During the course of a week, one can easily and readily find almost all kinds of popular music in the clubs -- even in the summer, when some of the bigger rooms have closed their doors till September. While quality is always an issue, there is still plenty of quantity. Here are just three examples:
Marcus Simeone has quickly established himself as one of the hot new voices in cabaret. Make no mistake about it; the man has a beautiful sound. In his recently concluded show at The Duplex, Mostly Standards, Simeone sang some of the best songs ever written, a big jump in quality over the pop tunes he has favored in the past. He gets high marks for his choice of material and, happily, he has the skills in place to deliver on the rich melodic lines of the Great American Songbook tunes. But lyrics written by the likes of Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, and Lorenz Hart require more sophisticated interpretative ability than he possesses, and this is where Simeone and the standards too often parted company.
His swinging version of Cole Porter's "Miss Otis Regrets" regretfully omitted the song's ironic tone. (One can swing and still unearth meaning in a lyric; just listen to Judy Barnett.) On the other hand, Simeone's R&B rendition of "Big Mabel Murphy" had personality and style. Perhaps his very best number was "Some Enchanted Evening" (Rodgers & Hammerstein), refreshingly put over by Simeone's distinctive high tenor in a sweet arrangement by D. Jay Bradley, his pianist/musical director. Bradley came up with several couplings of tunes that unfortunately ran aground against Simeone's patter. The singer too often insisted upon talking during these carefully constructed pieces, to the detriment of the songs; the patter turned the elegant into the banal. In addition, Simeone has a bad habit of apologizing for things that require no apology -- like announcing that what we're about to hear was created by someone else, so we shouldn't blame him if we don't like it. Audiences do not find that kind of remark attractive. Lina Koutrakos directed the show, but not enough.
The best advice we have for Simeone is talk less and sing more. Further, when singing, he shouldn't hold so many notes just because they sound pretty. On occasion, he should bite some of them off, and the pretty tones he sustains will be all the prettier by comparison.
There is a tribute to Liza Minnelli running at Danny's Skylight Room. It's called Sing Happy, but there is nothing happy about it. This is -- and there is considerable competition in this category -- one the of the worst shows we've ever seen in a cabaret room. Almost everything about it is ill-conceived, except the actual concept of doing such a show. Simply put, this travesty of a tribute could not possibly appeal to the very people it is intended to entertain: Liza's fans.
Briefly: There is an opening number from which the act never recovers, followed by various numbers performed by three women, each of whom essays certain aspects of Liza's career with the help of two dancing boys. For the most part, these women sing Liza's songs badly and offer information in the form of excruciating patter that sounds entirely written. On top of all this, the whole concoction is awkwardly directed. Frankly, the problem with doing such a show in New York is that there are several performers(Christine Pedi, Michael West, Rick Skye, etc.) who do incredible Liza impressions. Any one of them could provide a much more enjoyable evening than this sad troupe.
A far more satisfying, if offbeat, tribute was The Andrews Sisters' Hollywood Canteen. This musical theater piece celebrated the music of the famous World War II era sister act, as well as offering a camp recreation of a USO show within the confines of The Duplex Cabaret Theatre on Christopher Street. Three guys who might look more appropriate in lumberjack gear (Trauma Flintsone, Brant Kaiwi, and Mark Sargent) played the Andrew Sisters with plenty of verve; though not a pretty bunch, they sang a fair sight better than they looked. Their harmonies were tight and, as directed and choreographed by Donna Drake, their girl group choreography was sharp and cute. The girls were joined by a "sailor" from the audience (Joe Levesque) who captured the gee whiz attitude of the time, and a volunteer waitress (Toni Smith) with a 1940s movie star face and a sensational, deep, bluesy sound; her version of "I'll Be Seeing You" stopped the show. Rounding out the cast was Curtis Collins, who played the "Frankie" role to comic perfection, though his voice was the least interesting in this crowd of talent.
On the surface, one might have wished that the show was funnier; but if the laughs were thin, the music was not. This goodtime Canteen has just finished its run, but we're pleased to report that several of its cast members will be seen again when the hit comedy Christmas With the Crawfords returns for its third annual Yuletide yukfest in November.