'Tis the season when actors and singers, especially in New York theater, should throw very large bouquets to cabaret for giving them a home away from home between shows. This fall, three of the major Manhattan clubs gave space to ladies who can deliver the goods. Each has a theatricality that complements her distinctive vocal style.
70-ISH GIRLS 70-ISH
Feinstein's at The Regency gets the first bouquet for sheer chutzpah in booking, then following through with home runs: Cleo Laine showed that turning 75 need not shortchange a high priestess of jazz like herself. Then, none other than Polly Bergen returned to lay everybody flat with a demonstration of what the words "sophisticated" and "supper club" really mean. What Bergen did was to present those words as a living, breathing entity--this is what cabaret can be and should be, and so rarely is. She was followed by Barbara Cook (Not at the Café Carlyle? How did that happen?), who quietly, simply demonstrated that being and singing are one and the same.
Erv Raible of The Firebird Café (talk about an old New York, red-and-gold supper club look!) continues to astonish with some classy bookings you just wouldn't find elsewhere. The divine British actress Siân Phillips gave us an hour's worth of the full-evening show she does in Europe, reminding us that her visit here two seasons ago in the ill-fated Broadway show Marlene was far too brief.
Following Phillips' stint at the Firebird, Jackie & Roy left the comforts of suburban semi-retirement to offer one more display of the ineffable musical camaraderie they've shown for five decades. Both bookings were typical of Raible, who keeps us guessing season after season.
THE MILLER'S SON
John Miller, saloonkeeper extraordinaire at Arci's Place, keeps 'em coming back, all right. This is the cabaret about which nobody has a bad word to say. Show business can be pretty cutthroat but, when it comes to keeping clubs open and alive, suddenly all men are brothers. Believe me: The Firebird, Don't Tell Mama, Feinstein's, etc. are thrilled with the success of Arci's. The more clubs in this town, the better. And John Miller does it right. From the moment when the unflappable Lori greets you at the door to the moment when you are personally thanked as you leave, the feeling is one of warmth. And that warmth takes the stage as well; ask anyone who has performed at Arci's. The simple layout of the place allows the singer to feel instantly accessible to every person in the room. There's an enveloping quality to Arci's, and it flatters performers. Hence, they're comfortable, they relate, they deliver.
Miller has been very good to people in the theater, and his taste is musically eclectic: performers who continue to work at Arci's include the dynamic Karen Mason (returning with her by-now-famous Christmas show on December 3 and 4), the stylish and wise Wesla Whitfield with pianist Mike Greensill and the terrific Sean Smith on bass, and Broadway's Judy Kaye.
Continuing through December 2, Kaye's show at Arci's is a perfect example of why theater folk should give thanks to cabaret. Kaye is not a pop, jazz, or club singer per se. She is an actress in the musical theater--one of our best. Her ace is her voice, a 24-kt gold instrument with coloratura soprano facility on top and a Broadway belt at the bottom. Her Arci's act is perfectly constructed, and she speaks only when she has to. She can do a ballad, then turn around and play the ditz.
That's the problem--she does everything well. Kaye is a remarkable talent, a craftsman, and that confuses people in the worlds of both theater and cabaret. I sat there at Arci's, amazed by the fluency of her talent, thinking of all the shows she could have done and wondering why people aren't writing shows for her now. Through the medium of cabaret, Kaye keeps her hand in while she waits for an appropriate theater gig to come along. She and other refugees from musical theater owe a lot to cabaret because it keeps them alive, thriving, and singing their little hearts out to appreciative audiences. So let's give thanks to Erv, John, et al. this holiday season for providing that opportunity.