by Rob Lester
by Rob Lester
The future of cabaret is alive and well in the present, and learning from the past. I've been encouraged in this regard by seeing so many young performers and audience members at shows this month, watching both veterans and up-and-comers. I also like seeing repertoire reflect the same kind of old-and-new mix, with standards and newer songs heard in the same night.
One young performer, Eric Martin, is putting on an especially entertaining show Upstairs at Rose's Turn on Grove Street in Greenwich Village. With the plus of Tracy Stark on piano and occasional vocal harmonies, his act is directed by Stephen Nachamie and shows promise and sparkle. Called Say What?!, it's a well-chosen set of songs about words and communicating. And communicating with an audience seems to be a natural ability. Chipper and chatty, Eric registers strongly, despite a couple of stumbles with lyrics and notes on opening night. Ironically, he went blank in one song about not being able to find the right words; he recovered well and charmingly enough that he could consider making it part of the act. Describing himself as "a hopeless romantic," Eric refreshes "Fly Me to the Moon," convincingly playing dewy-eyed infatuation. His unspoiled reading is far from the florid or swing versions this old song has been getting for decades. He impresses with the contrastingly mature "Words He Doesn't Say" from the under-appreciated score of Romance, Romance. Eric's enthusiasm and high-energy humor win over his audience. His spunk and guile-with-a-smile keep any meanspiritedness at bay with Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich's zingy "The Morning After," one of two numbers about a lover getting the boot. It's a cowboy boot - and a hoot - in the case of "A Country Love Song" by Hector Coris and Paul L. Johnson. (Eric is part of the cast for the revue of their top-drawer witty songs, What's Your Problem?, which plays the same club on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and Saturday, April 29 at 9 p.m.; and Eric's remaining solo dates this week are: tomorrow Friday, March 24 and Tuesday, March 28, both at 7 p.m)
Also still feeling his way through cabaret is Jim Van Slyke at Danny's Skylight Room. Affable and modest, he's a more low-key presence. Heard live, his songs from his debut CD, Open Road are more striking. Taken on its own terms as more of a pop outing, the selections from his CD go down easy. He works with a band and sometimes plays piano himself. Two fine back-up singers are on stage, Keri Coulter and Renae Toney, and each gets a duet with Jim. His high voice is especially pretty and, though he doesn't showcase it as fully as he could, it is a pleasure to hear the floating tones in "Summer Breeze." When he settles in and takes on "Kiss Me in the Rain" from the album, he crosses the bridge from laidback "record" soundscape to involving cabaret. More emotion and in-the-moment presence come through on this vulnerable piece. His live set has more variety in its material, and that's welcome. A show tune, "I Believe in You" from How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying finds him more upbeat, and I especially liked how he capitalized on the lyric's line "slam, bang tang reminiscent of gin and vermouth" and really punched up the words. The classic "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" finally gives him a story song to act, and he rises to the occasion quite well. It's a beauty.
For a cabaret room, he might reconsider his patter. Too many set-ups began with, "this next song ..." Jim is a gracious host, but we learn almost nothing about him, and there aren't enough deep, revealing lyrics to let the songs pick up the slack. But when they did, as in "Should've Never Let You Go" (well sung by Jim and duet partner Keri) a lot comes through. An otherwise unseen and unsuspected side of him was happily revealed in a comedy number, and I won't spoil the impact of the surprise by naming it. Let's just say that Jim Van Slyke is more than just another pretty voice and he hasn't yet tapped his full potential because he's still discovering it. As a song in the musical ... Superman goes, "you've got possibilities you don't even know you've got."
A few blocks away from Danny's, the jazz club The Iridium on Broadway, hosts a seemingly endess number of events and musicians. In addition to jazz dates by stars passing through town, their Sunday brunch mixes cabaret guests sitting in with the band led by pianist Barry Levitt. Barry is also on hand with his usual flair for other events.
I was in attendance for a recent night and caught him and other veterans playing for another vet, the marvelous Marlene Ver Planck. After countless gigs and many albums, Marlene sounds as fresh as ever, relishing good melodies old and new. She sounded especially youthful and vibrant the night I popped in. Selections from her most recent CD Now! are terrifically energized, especially "The Party Upstairs." (Just days later, this fun collaboration of Ronny Whyte and Francesca Blumenthal was announced as a nominee for Song of the Year by MAC.) Marlene, whose love for quality songs is infectious, also shines on classics in a "romance" medley including some indestructible standards. A couple of thoughtful detours about drowning one's troubles in drink and dark bars ("Drinkin' Again" and "I Keep Going Back to Joe's") seem right at home as customers sip, but it's almost impossible to feel gloom when sunny Marlene is in the room.
Following Marlene that night was the vocal quintet, Group Five. Like Marlene, they've put in some time doing commercial work. They did a cute medley of their jingles, with great harmonies decorating the ditties that stick in the head whether you want them to or not. Concentrating on songs from earlier decades, they bring their attractive blend to memory pieces from the Big Band era and '50s pop, including novelty hits like "Lollipop." It's all good fun and nostalgically warm-spirited as they evoke the sounds of vocal groups from the past.
Paul Rolnick has been singing with Group Five for about two years, and he was one of many performers on hand this Monday for Cast Party, the weekly open mic at Birdland. Singing solo, he delivered "Cold Enough to Cross." This song, which he co-wrote with Henry Cory, just won the Bistro Award as Song of the Year (heard on the new album by Paul's wife and collector of numerous awards herself, Karen Mason, who got the night off to a happy start with "Get Happy.")
Hosted with hilarity and wit by Jim Caruso and Billy Stritch on the piano (he does his own show there on April 10, a Mel Torme tribute), there are always treats in store at Cast Party. I was especially impressed with talented Jonathan Rayson, whose first album Shiny and New is striking.
I'll be returning to Danny's to report on Yvonne Constant's French songs with musical director Russ Kassoff when they open there on March 28.
In my last column, I mentioned the tribute to Nancy LaMott at The Duplex. I caught it before Cast Party on Monday, and was glad to see this warm remembrance - it will be reprised this Monday, March 27, at 7 p.m. It is not intended to be an attempt to do Nancy's repertoire in her style, but I thought Lisa Asher beautifully captures the mix of vulnerability and hope that Nancy brought to material. Liz McCartney does a bravura "Listen to My Heart" and Lina Koutrakos shares memories funny and sweet and croons a mellow "Moon River." In another group show, later on the 27th, The Duplex will offer a chance to see those MAC-nominated for their "Debut" acts.
And you can catch this year's MAC-nominated songs at the aforementioned Iridium tonight, March 23, at 6 p.m., along with special guest Craig Carnelia.
See these websites for the above-mentioned clubs and acts for details.
www.DannysSkylightRoom.com, www.JimVanSlyke.com, www.IridiumJazzClub.com,