Musical theater is providing cabaret with an ever-increasing flood of performers. Some apparently view a cabaret appearance as an opportunity to concertize on a smaller scale, but the intimacy of this art form isn't primarily about the size of the venues. Entertainers don't always understand that it isn't so much a singer's voice that people come to cabaret for as the singer himself (or herself). Cabaret audiences want the feelling of having a personal connection with performers; that's what the word "intimate" really means in reference to this sort of entertainment.
Thom Christopher Warren, an up-and-coming musical theater actor (Once Upon a Mattress on Broadway, Copacabana on tour, etc.) clearly gets what cabaret is all about. At Judy*s Chelsea, he recently put together an act titled Organized Chaos that was exceedingly personal. More than that, he made a point of letting us see what each lyric of each song means to him. But therein lay the problem: Warren's show was, perhaps, a little too organized.
In the course of a generally entertaining and spirited act, this obviously talented performer indicated his emotions rather than simply sharing them. At one point, he made a joke at his own expense about how often he and Barbara Cook are compared to each other. It's a funny line; but, if we can take it seriously for a moment, the reason that Warren and so many other performers can't compare with Barbara Cook is that Cook sings with a simple purity. There is no artifice in her singing--or, rather, the audience doesn't see the artifice. As Spencer Tracy said about acting, the key is not to let the audience catch you at it; but Thom Christopher Warren can often be caught acting. What he does is still miles better than the slack, emotionally empty singing we too often encounter from theater folk. Warren's show is sharp, professional, and polished. We are, in fact, reluctant to complain at all about his engagement at Judy*s because far too many cabaret performers fail to give their acts the sheen that they should have. Sometimes, however, a carefully wrought act can seem...well, too careful and not entirely genuine.
Warren was completely successful in his patter, which he delivered with warmth and charm. His musical director, Michael Lavine, offered elegant support at the piano. On lights, Michael Barbieri created a sophisticated palette of moods that gave a tantalizing texture to the show, and Warren stood at the center of all this creativity with a strong, winning voice. He opened with the title tune from Frank Loesser's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and combined it with "I Believe in You" from the same show. From the start, he made us believe in him; we have no doubt he's going to succeed in this business.
Things got even better as he launched into a series of splendidly delivered comedy numbers, including a wonderful item called "Angelo Rosenbaum" (Holtzman-Needleman-Wild) about a person raised half Catholic and half Jewish whose dual nature seems to make love impossible. Warren's acting ability worked to his benefit on the funny songs but, when he turned serious, the acting sometimes got between him and the songs rather than serving as a conduit for his emotions. In a too-long section of the show about his friends and their newborn children, his rendition of "First You Dream" (Kander & Ebb) combined with "The Child in Me" (Dinerman) turned cloying because he simply did too much.
There seems to be a lot that Thom Christopher Warren wants to express. It's much easier to do less than it is to do more, and he'll undoubtedly figure that out soon enough, because this is one smart actor. In the meantime, Warren was absolutely worth catching in his cabaret debut.