Barbara and Scott
The Two of Clubs

Cabaret: A Variety Pack

Cabaret is live entertainment's big umbrella. If it can be done in an intimate space, regardless of what it is, call it cabaret. The old image of cabaret, with sequined women (and men) sipping cocktails and clucking at the tunes of Cole Porter and the Gershwins, isn't even a cliché anymore. Clichés usually harbor an element of truth, but the truth is that the beverage of choice is usually a beer and the music is wildly eclectic. For instance - and you're going to see exactly what we're talking about - you can see one act devoted to George M. Cohan with music written a century ago and then you can pop - and we mean, pop - into a show devoted to the music of Olivia Newton-John. Around the corner, you can catch a young woman singing blues standards, and every Monday night you can experience that umbrella-effect in one fell swoop by taking in Jim Caruso's Cast Party. But let's start with George M. Cohan ...

Jon Peterson in a Dandy of a Show

The grandfather of modern American musical comedy, George M. Cohan was a brash, brilliant, remarkable man. And, oh, what a talent. Writer/producer Chip Deffaa, an expert on all things Cohan, has created five entirely different shows devoted to the man's life and career, each with a different size cast and each for a different audience. Remarkably, not a single line of text is repeated in any of the five shows. We believe we've just seen the best of them. A one man show that can thrive either in cabaret or in a theater, it's called - what else: Yankee Doodle Dandy. It stars the charming triple threat performer Jon Peterson as Cohan.

With a tight script that flows smartly from song to song, Peterson gives a bright and breezy performance. The patter is minimal but it conveys just enough to paint the picture of the times and capture the relationships that drove and sustained this extraordinary showman.

Cohan is probably best known to modern audiences through the 1940 movie biopic called Yankee Doodle Dandy starring James Cagney. Cohan advised the production and was alive when it came out. He died soon after, but the movie was a great send off because it reminded Americans of Cohan's enormous contribution, not only to the theater but to the American spirit (he literally turned flag-waving into an art form) just as we were about to enter World War II.

Deffaa's piece does a miraculous job in a thrifty ninety minutes of encompassing Cohan's youth and his deep and abiding relationship with his family, his skills learned as a vaudeville trouper, and his battle to get a foothold in New York, followed by his rocketing success. Both his personal and professional lives are illuminated, often with a bit of whimsical patter, a song, and a dance. All of it is delivered by Jon Peterson with a winning sense of personality, a voice full of character, and two terrific dancing feet. If the show has a problem at Danny's Skylight Room, it's that the stage is too low and you can't see Peterson's dance steps unless you're sitting ringside.

This is the kind of biographical cabaret show that can play anywhere. It works in a cabaret room, in an Off-Broadway theater, a regional theater, or on a college stage. Insightful, entertainingly educational, and never preachy, this is a definite "Dandy."

The next opportunity to see this show will be on Friday, July 29th at 9:30 PM at Danny's Skylight Room.

The New and Improved Olivia Newton-John

Steven Ray Watkins might be the busiest man in cabaret these days. He's working in a piano bar, musical directing some of the boldest shows we've seen lately, and putting on his own cabaret act, as well. We see him constantly in one role or another - and whenever we see him, we know that means quality. That's why we were fascinated to see what he would do with a show devoted to the music of Olivia Newton-John.

The problem with performing a show based on music with limited scope is that there is only so much you can do with it. One of the reasons so many popular artists from Willie Nelson to Rod Stewart return to the standards is because they are elastic. Musically and lyrically they are so rich and resilient that they can hold their beauty and their meaning in a variety of musical styles. Some styles suit the songs better than others, but a great song is a great song. "Let's Get Physical" is cute, but it's not a great song.

To his credit, Watkins plumbed through the Newton-John songbook to come up with a pleasing variety of material, but the appeal of the music finally rests on the nostalgic goodwill of the listener. In other words, if you grew up listening to these songs, the show will work for you. If you didn't, well, thank God its Watkins at the microphone because he can (and often does) turn the mediocre into the magnificent. He does so with the help of a couple of swell backup singers named Alisa Schiff and Julie Stirman. Watkins called the act a "Guilty Pleasure" and all we can say is the guilt is his and the pleasure is ours, but not because of Newton-John - because of Steven Ray Watkins.

Jim Caruso Owns Monday Nights

We go to Jim Caruso's Cast Party at Birdland on Monday nights as often as we possibly can - which is pretty often. When the history of this era in New York's live entertainment is written, the Cast Party will probably deserve a chapter of its own. It's only a few years old so far, so much of that history has yet to happen but there is nothing else like it in New York. Once a week, it rises out of Jim Caruso's drive to entertain, providing the hot spot for some of New York's most talented people to get up and sing. Or be seen. Or talk. Or listen. Or be discovered.

Caruso is a living lesson in how to be a host. Nobody does it better. Not even close. He's charming, funny and just about the hippest guy on the scene because he doesn't try. He just is. His humor is often at his own expense. But he's more than just a delightful host who knows how to keep a party spinning; he's also a wonderful song stylist. Ask him to sing "If I Only Had a Brain" and you'll get the most tender, aching version of the song you've ever heard. At the other end of the spectrum, he and Billy Stritch do a hilarious Sonny & Cher medley. And speaking of Billy Stritch, he sight reads like nobody's business. We are constantly amazed at how brilliant he is when he's playing for complete strangers, and reading charts cold. He's not at the Cast Party every single Monday night, but it's always special when he's the guy behind the piano. Bass player Steve Doyle is an added treasure.

The list of famous people who have performed at the Cast Party is staggering. Michael Feinstein might get up one night and perform. Another night it might be Liza Minnelli. Or movie star Jeff Daniels. Or you. He has a stable of regular performers who generally perform one tune every week and they are top quality people like Natalie Douglas and Julie Garnye. The composers of Avenue Q, Batboy, and other musicals often try out new songs there. And critics, like us (okay, us), go there to be both entertained and to see who and what is bubbling to the surface.

Over a period of time, we heard a young woman by the name of Jenna Esposito perform and she always seemed to stand out. When she announced that she was doing her own show at Danny's Skylight Room, we decided to see if she had the goods. After all, it's wonderful when accomplished stars take the stage at Cast Party but it's especially exciting to catch someone at the start of their career when they might some day actually become one of those accomplished stars.

The Jenna Esposito Experience

In the intimate confines of Danny's Skylight Room, Jenna Esposito packs in a back up band that includes piano, synthesizer, drums, electric guitar, and electric bass. But it isn't so much the number of instruments as it is their volume. Despite Esposito's big, robust voice, she oftentimes cannot vault over the wall of sound blaring from the stage. This isn't a case of an imbalance in the miking; the band is just too damned loud. But once you get past the assault on your ears and focus on Esposito's talent, you're going to be increasingly impressed ...

Let's begin by making a distinction. Esposito's show is disappointing, but this young singer, nonetheless, displays a veritable arsenal of skills. During the course of her show she proves she is a very fine actress. Her big, expressive eyes aren't just windows to her soul, they are a veritable skylight. When she sings "Come Rain or Come Shine," she does it with heat, heart, and a touch of heaven. A performance like that shows you what she's capable of when she digs into the lyric and sings from the inside out. Too often, however, she's singing the arrangements which are far too insistent and overbearing. She needs to work on her patter, as well. She seems entirely comfortable talking on stage but she hasn't really figured out what she should say.

The best parts of her show are when the band cools its jets so she can settle into a song and explore its subtleties. Listen to her sing "That's All," and she'll break your heart. Even on a pop ballad like "Since I Fell," she can make you listen and care. She can swing, she can rock, and she can belt - Esposito is nothing if not versatile - but none of it will matter until she can more consistently sing the words instead of the notes. And please a little softer. All she really needs behind her is a piano and bass - maybe that's why she was so impressive when we first heard her at Jim Caruso's Cast Party - that's what was playing behind her then. And that's all she needs; that, and more experience. She's got the gift. Now all she has to do is learn how to package it.

Jenna Esposito has one more show left at Danny's Skylight Room on Thursday, July 21 at 9:15 PM.

Show ... .and Tell

The great - and we mean great - singer/songwriter John Wallowitch is holding court at Danny's Skylight Room every Friday at 7 PM at least through July. Charming, funny, sophisticated and oh so talented, he is a must see for anyone who loves the art of cabaret.

Karen Mack and Michael Holland are back with a new Gashole Show at The Encore on Saturday, July 30th at 8 PM. This series of lighthearted shows is one of cabaret's brightest success stories. Not only are Mack and Holland consistently entertaining both musically and comically in all of their many and varied Gashole acts, they have also consistently drawn substantial audiences - which are not only a testament to their popularity, but also to their skills.

Upstairs at Rose's Turn is featuring two special shows called Summer Stock, each with its own stellar cast, on Friday, July 22 and Friday July 29, both at 7 PM. Everybody is singing show tunes, and we know most of the performers who will be on each bill; good music, good singers, what could be bad? We're going on the 22nd. Any takers?


-- Barbara and Scott Siegel


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