The Two of Clubs
The One and Many - Jimmy James
Every now and then it is useful to remember that the most consistently successful performers in cabaret are celebrity impersonators. During our tour of duty in New York's cabaret rooms, the stars - and we really mean "stars" - of this particular genre within the big tent of cabaret have been (among others), Tommy Femia (as Judy Garland), Steven Brinberg (as Barbra Streisand), and Richard Skipper (as Carol Channing). These are performers who make their living by transforming themselves into their famous counterparts in order to lovingly spoof, goof, and sometimes raise the roof as their alter egos. These entertainers, and others like them, play all over the United States, and all over the world. They are, as a rule, always working. There aren't many cabaret artists who can make the same claim.
We mention all of this because a celebrity impersonator of an earlier era, who helped pave the way for the success of the current crop of stars, has, after playing for years in places like Provincetown, MA, finally settled into a club gig in New York City.
His name is Jimmy James and no one impersonated Marilyn Monroe with more success than this man. In fact, his past is part of his current act as he shows a clip reel of himself as Marilyn making guest appearances on a slew of shows that include The Phil Donahue Show and Sally Jessey Raphael, and landing on a Times Square billboard, to boot.
Happily, his new show in The Hideaway Room at Helen's in Chelsea is not simply a retrospective of his past successes, but also a demonstration of his current skills. James has expanded his range of celebrity impersonations in a show called Divas Are Forever. In his eight diva finale, he performs as Cher, Mae West, Judy Garland, Eartha Kitt, Barbra Streisand, Billie Holliday, Bette Davis, and, of course, Marilyn Monroe.
James doesn't do all of his impersonations equally well. A seasoned performer, however, he knows which characters kill and which do not, so he wisely goes to the bank on his big winners, among them, Eartha Kitt, Billie Holliday, and an uproarious Bette Davis. He has one set piece - you can check it out on his website - in which he sings "Feliz Navidad" as a drunken Bette Davis to a meticulously edited series of Bette Davis film clips (with a few errant shots from the Jimmy Stewart Christmas classic, It's a Wonderful Life). Don't try to drink while you watch it; it'll come up your nose when you laugh.
A multi-media show with video, music on tracks as well as live piano accompaniment, Jimmy James stands at the center of it and does all the voices without putting on any of the costumes, the wigs, or the specific makeup. He doesn't need any of it. He's a star now in his own right. And you can see him every Saturday night at Helen's right through the summer - and possibly beyond.
Marcus Meets Mathis
When we heard that award-winning cabaret artist Marcus Simeone was doing a show devoted to Johnny Mathis we knew he was on to something smart. Performing the music made famous by Mathis was a natural fit for Simeone whose singing style already resonates with the master's ethereal high notes. We went to his show with high hopes, and this is what we found ...
If you're coming, in part, for the patter, hoping to learn about the life and art of Johnny Mathis, you won't get it in Simeone's show. It's simply not that kind of act. He throws an occasional factoid your way, and he sets up a few songs with Mathis anecdotes, but these moments are more the exception than the rule. Unfortunately, he doesn't replace patter he might have used to give us insight into Mathis with anything else, but that doesn't stop him from talking. Our best advice; if you haven't got something specifically prepared to say before a song, don't talk, just sing.
And singing, of course, is Simeone's strong suit. We haven't seen all of his shows in recent years but among those that we have seen, this is the best he's done so far. Perhaps the overlay of performing an evening of Mathis hits has given him a vocal discipline he never displayed before. When he performs "It's Not for Me To Say," "There Goes My Heart," and "Wonderful, Wonderful," Simeone isn't adding extra syllables in a vocal riff or soaring to high notes for the sake of proving he can do it. No. Working with musical director Tracy Stark, he's mostly singing the songs straight and true. And he sounds all the better for it because the songs are being served rather than being used as a vocal exercise. Speaking of Stark, one of the most charming numbers in the show is a comic duet between her and Simeone called "I Said No." It was sweet, simple, funny, and entirely real.
Both Mathis and Simeone have a natural cry in their respective voices that suggest emotion. And Simeone, at his best, was able to make us feel when he performed "Yellow Roses on Her Gown" and "Answer Me, My Love." At his worst, he had the poor judgment to cover one of Mathis' more foolish adventures, doing a disco version of Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine." Everything about this number is wrong, starting with a complete misunderstanding of the lyric. "Begin the Beguine" is a song of romantic torment, not a tune one sings with a big smile on your face and a disco ball swirling overhead. Its bad enough Mathis did it; Simeone hardly needed to remind us of the travesty.
We caught the last of three shows Simeone was doing at Helen's, but it's reasonable to assume that he is not yet finished with Johnny Mathis. This is a show that is easily fixed of its modest flaws and, given the subject matter, could readily be booked in clubs around the country.
Saturday Night at The Encore Piano Bar
Every piano bar in the city sends out its "A" team on Saturday night, so you'll likely see great talent wherever you go for your unique combination of Mai Tai's and tunes. If, however, you're looking for a recommendation for a place to check out, then hurry on over to The Encore on West 47th Street this Saturday night and catch the newly assembled team of Steven Ray Watkins on the piano with a singing wait staff of Julie Garnyť, Kate Pazakis, and Jonathan Tomaselli.
The music on Saturday night tends to range between contemporary Broadway show tunes to classic pop. The club is far larger than any of its counterparts and has a big open area near the piano that seems to encourage couples to get up and dance. And sing (it is an open microphone should you want to get up and warble, as well). The Encore serves food till 1 am and it's open from 9:30 pm to 4 am. Given its location, it's where any self-respecting musical theater devotee ought to be between shows and sleep.
Show ... Tell
Every Wednesday in July, at 7 pm, you can find Ray Jessel at Don't Tell Mama. He's a singer/songwriter with some of the funniest material you will hear in a cabaret club. He's been around the block and his humor is all the wiser for it. If you haven't seen him, you should.
Every Friday night at 7 pm you can find John Wallowitch at Danny's Skylight Room. He's not just another singer/songwriter, he's the veritable model. He's written not only some of the most enduring comic standards of our time ("Bruce"), he's also written some of the most stunning ballads of the last several decades ("This Moment"). He's also one of the most charming performers you will ever see sitting at a piano. Ever.
Finally, before we leave June behind, Jamie deRoy & Friends will take place at The Encore on Thursday, June 30 at 7:30 pm with deRoy's usual all-star line-up. Always a generous show both in time and talent, it continues to be an important talent showcase where audience members can discover future stars. Peter Cincotti, for instance, was a frequent guest in Jamie deRoy & Friends. And he's not the only one. We'll be there on Thursday, ourselves.
Have a great July 4th weekend!
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