Going the Distance
Notes on Neil LaBute's play, Jim Caruso's return, and cabaret stars Julie Reyburn, Jack Donahue, Ruben Flores, and Martha Lorin.
The Distance From Here is a story about teenagers who exist, like driftwood, in life's backwaters, each trying to stay emotionally afloat by means of a tenuous raft of friendship. It's not a happy story. Neither is it a story without hope. But, oh, how you will recognize these characters. And that is LaBute's greatest gift as a writer.
Perhaps one of the hardest things a playwright can attempt is creating complex, multi-dimensional characters that are largely incapable of expressing themselves. In a play, we expect characters to talk, and talk, and talk. LaBute's skill as an accomplished screenwriter gets him around this problem because he knows how to create characters by way of actions rather than words. Gestures, attitudes, poses, the clash of physical performances all help to vividly tell us what these characters would say if only they had the words. The only way this works on stage, however, is if the actors (with the aid of a crackerjack director) are electric enough to spark meaning in their movements. Simply put, director Michael Greif and his entire eight-person cast floods the stage at The Duke on 42nd Street with characters of almost unfathomable depth. The characters, with brilliantly imagined indifference, express themselves in the most extraordinary ways.
Plot, character, and theme all come together like fusion at the climax of the show. LaBute has a well-deserved reputation both in his movies and in his plays to shock the audience with a twist or a turn (or both). It happens here, too, and with breathtaking horrific surprise. Most importantly, LaBute earns every gasp he gets from the audience. And, man, do they gasp!
Caruso's Triumphant Return
Jim Caruso's Cast Party is soooooo back! Monday nights have meaning again, now that host Jim Caruso, pianist Billy Stritch, and bass player Steve Doyle have found a new home. They're holding court every Monday from 9pm to 1am in the Pink Room at Club Black way, way West on 55th Street (605 West 55th, to be exact). On the return of Caruso and company, the Pink Room was packed to the rafters. And packed with some of the most talented people in New York. First among equals was Stephen Schwartz, coming to Caruso's party to celebrate on the very day his show, Wicked, was nominated for 10 Tony Awards.
But for us, the real story of the night was the audience. Let it be said that many cabaret entertainers stopped coming to the Cast Party in the latter months of its run at the King Kong Room. They felt ignored in favor of the theater folks who Caruso would invite to perform in their stead during the hot part of the evening. At the Pink Room, however, it was the cabaret folks who came out in support of Caruso, and they did so in record numbers. And time and time again, they tore the pink roof of the place with their scintillating performances. Now that Caruso is once more a Monday night must, the theater folks will start coming again, too. One hopes that Mr. Caruso will remember who was there for him when it counted most.
But for now, let's rejoice in Caruso's return and the addition of yet another new room that is pretty in pink, courtesy of a clearly committed Mr. Steven Minichiello of Club Black.
The cabaret world has been heating up on other days of the week besides Mondays. As the MAC Awards approach (this coming Monday night at Symphony Space), some of the art form's best entertainers have been putting on shows all over town. Cabaret star Julie Reyburn put on a one-night only show at 11:30pm at Helen's that had patrons hoping she'd come back with this show or any show for a long run. Also at Helen's, Ruben Flores returned with his MAC nominated show for one last look at the impressive act that brought him to the attention of the cabaret community.
Elsewhere, Jack Donahue returned to New York after much too long an absence with a new CD (Strange Weather) and a new act at The Triad to celebrate its release. A jazz-infused show, Donahue is as charming and funny in person as ever. His material also continues to be as uneven as ever. He has the potential to be a truly magnificent entertainer but we see it only in flashes, not consistently throughout his entire show. He's an excellent lyric interpreter but he gets caught up in singing too many songs for their style rather than their content. Strikingly good looking, with talent too spare, check him out and decide for yourself. He's at the Triad on June 18 and 27 at 9:30pm.
Speaking of jazz, we caught up to Martha Lorin's last show at Mama Rose. We can say, without doubt, that there isn't a jazz singer in cabaret -- or in the larger jazz world -- that we know who has a more beautiful, seductive sound. To hear her sing "Where or When" is to wish the song would play on a loop; whether singing standards or a work of her own creation ("Coney Island," by Lorin with Margaret Dalton), she is a genuine artist. Her patter has a way of becoming a bit too idiosyncratic but when she sings, she can do no wrong. Russ Kassoff, Her pianist/arranger, however, can do a little more right if he would stop riffing song phrases from other famous tunes within the number he's playing for Lorin. On occasion, that can be cute and funny, but overused it simply becomes a distraction.
Though Lorin's singing can make you move and shake, it turns out that she's a mover and a shaker in her own right. She helped create a brand new music festival in Milford, New York that launches on June 4, 5, and 6 with a wide variety of entertainment that ranges from the award-winning cabaret star Lennie Watts to the famous jazz group, The Bill Mays Trio. We're going to make every effort to get out there and check it out ourselves. Hey, it's summer. Who says we can't leave the city for a few days?