Rob Kapilow(Photo: © Steven Speliotis)
Rob Kapilow
(Photo: © Steven Speliotis)
The Kaplan Penthouse is periodically turned into a sparkling nightspot for Lincoln Center's American Songbook series. It is here that the love affair between cabaret and musical theater is rapturously consummated. The assignation, sponsored by AT&T and produced by Ira Weitzman, brings seasoned theater performers -- who are oftentimes cabaret virgins -- to the club format. The musical intercourse that takes place is wonderfully intimate, and so satisfying that audiences are panting for more. The latest two installments of the series featured the extraordinary Robert Kapilow in a unique program called What Makes Leonard Bernstein Great? and Broadway star LaChanze in her cabaret debut.

Last year, Kapilow -- with the help of Ann Hampton Callaway -- explored what was great about the Great American Songbook by dissecting six different standards. This year, with the assistance of Brian d'Arcy James and Ana Maria Andricain, he narrowed his focus to three songs from West Side Story in order to explain, with scintillating specificity, why Leonard Bernstein's score has continued to thrill audiences since the show's opening in 1957. Except for a couple of unnecessary digs at Andrew Lloyd Weber, this was a knockout combination of education and entertainment.

Kapilow spent 15 minutes examining the first eleven bars of "Something's Coming," dissecting the rhythms, the choice of notes, the use of rests, and the movement of the song up and down the scale. He brought the same intellectual scalpel to bear on "Maria" and "Tonight." In the course of the show, Kapilow had d'Arcy James and Andricain sing bits and pieces of these songs; only when the maestro was finished turning each song inside out would he allow the singers to perform it all the way through. And hearing each song after Kapilow revealed its musical secrets was like meeting a celebrity just after reading his or her autobiography. Throughout the show Kapilow never once sounded dry or academic -- but he did sound smart, enthusiastic, and stunningly articulate. He has a remarkable ability to make genius understandable to a general audience; that made this tribute to Leonard Bernstein particularly apt, as this was also one of Bernstein's great gifts.

The following night, again under the auspices of the American Songbook series, LaChanze made her cabaret debut at the Kaplan Penthouse. As you may know, this musical theater star lost her husband at the Twin Towers on 9/11. In the Kaplan, she performed in front of a floor-to-ceiling window with the lights of New York City glittering behind her; the image of her standing there as her voice soared in song was a statement of defiance against those who would try to bring this city down.

There were three songs in La Chanze's program that referred to her loss, but the show was ultimately about this singer's expansive talents. Unlike many theater performers who try their hand at cabaret and don't know how to be themselves on stage, LaChanze proved to be a natural. Under the smooth guidance of her director (and her one-time co-star in Once on This Island), Jerry Dixon, she developed a quick and easy relationship with the audience. Her patter was delivered with a natural ease and her performance style was warm and enveloping rather than presentational.

Without being overtly autobiographical, the show was an engaging and entertaining reflection of her life and career: She performed songs from shows she starred in, including "The Skate" (by Kirsten Childs, from The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin), "Another Hundred People" (Stephen Sondheim, from Company), and "Waiting For Life" (Stephen Flaherty/Lynn Ahrens, from Once on This Island). Where La Chanze really pulled the audience in, however, was with her playful rendering of the standard "That's All" (Bob Haymes/Alan Brandt). She began it as a soulful torch song, then stopped to explain that she uses this tune as a lullaby for her two young children; when she went back into the song, she gave it an inspired comic twist that buttoned on a sweet, loving, motherly tone. It was the highlight of the show and, perhaps, the most cabaret-like interpretation of any song in her act. Which is another way of saying that the American Songbook series has delivered yet another musical theater star to the world of cabaret.


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