by Rob Lester
Phil is working with Brandon on a big number in which he needs to comically portray a man under pressure. That feeling is not too hard to capture - the vocalist is less than a week away from a major coup: he's booked for a night at Manhattan's posh and prestigious night club, Feinstein's at the Regency, where the most glittery of cabaret names hold court. He has been chosen to do a solo show on June 5th as part of their Monday night series showcasing newer talent and he knows it's a big step.
In this rehearsal, all of Brandon's considerable energy is going into making the most of every moment in the rollicking blues number, "Early in the Morning," an old specialty of Louis Jordan. Brandon scrunches up his all-American boy-next-door face, and his eyes become slits. He begins to seethe. I've heard the song three times in a row, but I'm laughing for the first time. Something is beginning to work. Something is beginning to click. He's not just singing now, he's coloring the words with emotion, sharpening his timing, finding ways to vary the lines that repeat. His face shows rage, exhaustion and an amusing amalgam of embarrassment and confusion. Pianist Ray Fellman eggs him on, pounding away on the keyboard to drive the piece to a climax. "We'll keep working on it," says Phil, matter-of-factly, conscious of the precious time booked in the rehearsal studio.
They go through several songs, including a tender ballad and a comic showpiece, "It's the Christian Thing to Do," by Michael John LaChiusa. That song is part of the multi-songwriter song cycle depicting the seven deadly sins introduced by Audra McDonald. Anger is the sin du jour, as the character portrayed tries to suppress it and turn the other cheek after a break-up. The fun comes in the failure of that effort, and this gives full reign to Brandon's bag of tricks, and schtick, refined and reigned in by Phil.
Singer, director and pianist are a comfortable trio; they've been working together for a long time. Brandon recalls, "Phil, in his role as Director of Programming at The Duplex Cabaret Theater, called and said The Duplex wanted to try to fill the cabaret room on Fridays after 11 p.m., as the room had been sitting empty at that time. He asked if I'd host a Sondheim open-mic party for the month of October, 2004. We're still running!"
Many people know the singer from nights in that series, called Mostly Sondheim, that stretches well into the wee small hours of the morning. With tireless Ray at the piano (he seems to be able to play anything), Brandon sings and jokes and introduces other performers, both polished pros and ambitious amateurs, some emboldened by the consumed beverages of the alcoholic variety. "I'm so loud and saucy and crude in that show. When I'm not performing, I'm very quiet." Those who have been in attendance at these brash bashes and only know this image may find that difficult to believe. He presents a ranting, boisterous anything-goes persona in that environment, but that's just one side of him. Those who attended the recent Broadway By The Year: Musicals of 1956 concert witnessed his sensitive side as he plaintively crooned "It Must Be So," from Candide, as well as stepping comfortably into musical comedy shoes. His solo cabaret shows and guest appearances have also shown his versatility. At his second home of The Duplex, I've caught him this season turning serious in revues tributing Joni Mitchell and Nancy LaMott. "[Nancy] died ten years ago, but I still learn from her when I listen to her CDs." Asked for others whose work he admires, he lists, "Andrea Marcovicci, Karen Mason, Lisa Asher, Gabrielle Stravelli - she's the newcomer to watch - my cohorts, Phil Bond and Ray Fellman. All of these people teach me so much about music and interpretation. I try to be a sponge whenever I'm around any of these people."
The sponge has also been soaking up praise and honors. Brandon won the BackStage Bistro Award for his work, and has two MAC Awards: one for Best Debut, and last year he picked up the Male Vocalist award for his Duplex show, No Reservations, which had many reservations, running for four months, directed again by Phil Bond. And Brandon is understandably excited and proud to have been added to the soon-to-be-released, updated version of James Gavin's fascinating book, Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret. With a nod to Phil's re-energizing of The Duplex, the author states:
"I desperately wanted to be a Contemporary Christian singer. For a few years, I was in a Christian singing group called S.O.S. which was an acronym for Season of Song (the "season" part was based on Ecclesiastes 3:1). We toured all over Indiana." Coming from a religious family has its challenges, he admits. "Being in a preacher's family means always living in a glass house. A parish usually expects the preacher's family to live up to the same standard as the preacher. That's when things get difficult. My mom, who also grew up a preacher's kid, was really good about teaching us how to keep things in perspective and not ever take things too seriously. Basically, she taught my brother and me to set our own standards and focus on meeting those. We were told from the very beginning to just be ourselves. I think that's pretty unusual for a preacher's family. Anyway, it's quite the scene when I go to my parents' church back in Indiana with my hot Jamaican boyfriend. You can hear the whispers in the next town! My mom and dad are such great sports about it all."
The religious upbringing finds a place in his cabaret presentation. It's there along with song choices ranging from pop hits of Alanis Morrisette and k.d. lang to standards by Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer and one from Cole Porter ("Let's Misbehave," naturally). The Feinstein's set doesn't have a "theme"; however, upon reflection, the entertainer reflects, "I must admit many of my connections to the songs I have chosen are rooted in my childhood and adolescence."
He is adamant that cabaret is "very relevant to younger people." His future plans include more singing and acting, and his next big project is to record his first CD. Recently, he began accepting offers to direct other singers' cabaret shows. He also loves to travel, and recently spent some time in Rome with boyfriend, Angelo.
His schedule this week is focused on numerous rehearsals for Monday, and it gives him pause to try to put everything in perspective. The usually offhand young man admits, "I had a 'pinch me!' moment when I found out Feinstein's was booking me. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't also really cool to sing onstage in The Oak Room at The Algonquin" (where he was named a Finalist in their Young Artist Competition). "I grew up in the outskirts Columbus, Indiana. My backyard was literally a cornfield. I used to perform at the Bartholomew County 4-H Fair in Columbus. I'd sing in the barns or the shelter houses, wherever they put the stage any given year. I loved every minute of it. Sometimes it just makes me laugh when I'm onstage at a fancy place like Feinstein's or The Algonquin. I sometimes think to myself, 'How on earth did I get here?'"
(Like the old joke about getting to Carnegie Hall, the answer is: "practice, practice, practice." And some drive and real talent has helped, too.)
Feinstein's At The Regency will present Brandon Cutrell on Monday, June 5th at 8:30 p.m., with musical director Ray Fellman on piano and Julie Danielson on bass. The show has a $25 cover and a two-drink minimum. Jackets are suggested but not required. The address is 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street in Manhattan. For ticket reservations and club information, call (212) 339-4095. Tickets are not available online.
More on this performer, including audio clips at www.BrandonCutrell.com.