Sharon McNight, Anthems
(Don't Tell Mama)

Sharon McNight
Sharon McNight
Any time Sharon McNight comes to New York, it's cause for cabaret celebration. The San Francisco-based diva has more talent than Bill Gates has microchips, and she ad-libs at pentium speed. Quick and funny when she's talking--and she likes to talk!--McNight is simply dynamic as a singer. And Anthems, her current show at Don't Tell Mama (through October), is a perfect vehicle for this big-voiced, brassy entertainer.

Actually, a significant percentage of the songs in this act aren't really anthems; but when McNight plants her feet and rips into a song, she can turn even a nursery rhyme into a call to arms. That's not to say that she tries to make every number sound like "The Impossible Dream," although she does perform a bold rendition of that famous song by Joe Darion and Mitch Leigh from Man of La Mancha. McNight's show is a carefully constructed act with a mixture of ballads, comedy tunes, and blow-out anthems. With rare exceptions (she shouldn`t sing David Friedman's "My Simple Christmas Wish," because Alix Korey does it better), McNight's material is well-chosen. She can be a modern-day vaudevillian, bawdy and brilliant when she sings "Menopause Rag" by Marie Cain (from Too Old for the Chorus), and then she can turn around and nail your feet to the floor with her wailing, heart-pounding rendition of "Hold Out For The Real Thing" by Karen Gottlieb and Michele Brourman.

Though the show is not titled The Best of Sharon McNight, that's more or less what it is. It's certainly the best work this performer has done in a few years. McNight's last show in New York, devoted to country music, suffered from sound problems and a lack of focus. Not so her new show: On lights and sound, Sean Moninger seems to anticipate McNight's every thought. The lighting in particular is so amusingly inspired and perfectly timed that it becomes a genuine participant in the proceedings, which rarely happens in cabaret. As for focus, this show is sharp. And Louis Goldberg accompanies the diva on the piano with some musical sass of his own.

McNight ends her act, as she has for so many years, with the Billy Joel anthem "I've Loved These Days." Nobody sings the song with as much honest passion as this lady. It's the perfect finale to a superb show.

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Jay Leonhart at the Algonquin
(The Oak Room)

Jay Leonhart may be the only bass player on the planet who has his own act. He recently brought that act to the famed Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel in preparation for an anticipated Off-Broadway opening in the Spring of 2001.

The show centers around tunes of Leonhart's own composition. He is the creator of more than 300 songs, many of them quirky comedy numbers. Witty, winsome, and winning, Leonhart's eccentric sense of humor provided a cool, comic respite from the summer's more typical cabaret acts.

He opened with the disarming "It`s Impossible to Sing and Play the Bass." After that, the humor continued to flow. Despite a tendency to repeat lines a bit too often within a song, Leonhart's comedy works because he exposes, often at his own expense, life's embarrassing little truths. For instance, he performed a song about a cross-country plane trip during which he sat next to Leonard Bernstein ("Me and Lenny"); the number drily communicates the arc of the journey, from shy beginnings to comaraderie, and then gives us a final, comic kick in the pants. Best known for his sardonic style, Leonhart was in fine form singing "Robert Frost," a bitingly funny piece in which he compares his lot as a writer who has to work for a living to that of Frost--who, he suggests, did not. A master of exaggeration, Leonhart put his unique stamp on "Customs," about a character who becomes indignant when he's stopped by a customs officer for attempting to bring into the country a preposterous assortment of animals and other items. (Leonhart wrote this song for the long-running, Off-Broadway hit Secrets Every Smart Traveler Should Know.) Whether tapping into the common woes of the world in "Don`t You Wish" or heading off into the surreal and disturbing in "They`re Coming to Get Me," Leonhart often goes where no other composer--let alone bass player--has gone before.

When it comes to delivering lyrics, Leonhart is more of an actor than a singer, but he has a vocal style that suits his music: a cool, jazz staccato. For his Oak Room gig, he was backed by two musicians as superb as himself, Bill Charlap on piano and Michael Leonhart on trumpet. The latter is the Jay's son who, incidentally won a Grammy at the age of 18. That's the same age at which Jay Leonhart played backup for Judy Garland. Nice work, if you can get it!