Barbara and Scott
The Two of Clubs

3 1/2 Stars: Broadway Stands Up For Freedom! – The Benefit

Most benefits are born out of the desire – if not the need – to help people in immediate trouble. Whether it's BC/EFA or money raised to help the victims of Katrina, entertainers rightly feel compelled to give of their time and talent in the hope of making a difference in the here and now. How different and forward-thinking it is, therefore, to come upon a benefit that's intended not as a bandage on a wound but as preventative medicine. We're talking specifically about the recent benefit at Symphony Space called Broadway Stands Up For Freedom! It was a benefit for the New York Civil Liberties Union (simply put, it's the New York chapter of the ACLU) that will use this money for, among other things, education and youth programs.

Broadway Stands Up for Freedom

The benefit originated in cabaret four years ago at Danny's Skylight Room and raised $5,000. This year, at a packed Symphony Space, it raised $50,000. Much credit for that jump in benefit moolah must go to the stars that drew the crowd (including last minute no-show Audra McDonald). Among those performers who not only showed up, but shined, were Erich Bergen, Michael Cerveris, Kevin Chamberlin, Leah Hocking, Cady Huffman, Cheyenne Jackson, and Celia Keenan-Bolger. Though surprise guest star Shoshana Bean opened the evening with a blast of song, the evening really began immediately thereafter with the appearance of Honorary Host Tony Kushner who gave a hilariously barbed speech that was noteworthy for the speed with which it was delivered as well as its humor. None of the speeches that peppered the rest of the evening came close to touching Kushner's slashing essay.

Naturally, there were dud performances mixed in with the gems but, hey, the other performers showed up and that's no small thing. More problematic was the decision to force the performers to introduce themselves. That was awkward and unnecessary. Also awkward and unnecessary were the little kids making noise, crying, talking, and running up and down the aisles during the performances. Wonder which side of the argument the NYCLU would take on that one? They support the no cell phone law in theaters. Maybe we've got a chance ....

4 Stars: Hilary Kole – Haunted Heart

Hilary Kole
Hilary Kole
We've been following the enigmatic career of singer Hilary Kole for a long time. Here is a woman who could not be more stunning to look at, who has a smoky, rich and vibrant voice, and great musical chops. But up until her show last week at Birdland called Haunted Heart she had not yet found the key to unlock her many gifts. As a creator and founding member of hit revues about Sinatra and Astaire, she saddled herself too often with songs and scripts that were less about her and more, naturally, about her subjects; she didn't truly stand out. At other times, one could admire her musicianship but feel let down by her disinterest in lyric interpretation. But something happened last week. She crossed her musical Rubicon and oh, what a difference ...

We can only surmise, but in Haunted Heart Kole set about to choose the songs she most loved and wanted to sing. She didn't care if the show was ballad heavy (it was). She didn't care if much of the material was sad and brokenhearted (it was). And she didn't care if she had her back to the audience for three songs she performed at the piano (she didn't care but we did; that wasn't so smart). The end result, however, was an act of depth, feeling and connection. These were songs that mattered to her and she communicated that – sometimes with breathtaking intensity - throughout her performance.

In the first place, she's got great taste. Her program was jam-packed with wonderful songs that were essentially lyric driven, giving her the opportunity to sell their sentiments not just with her voice, but with her soul. She was smart. There were no histrionics. She looked at faces in the audience and sang to them, moving only slightly herself, never posing or posturing. A beautiful woman, she doesn't need to flaunt it. The effect was honest, and songs like "What'll I Do?" (Irving Berlin), "Old Boyfriends" (Tom Waits), and "Two for the Road" (Henry Mancini) came across in ways that we have never before experienced in her presence.

Her patter was as honest as her singing. She didn't try to be cute; she was conversational, comfortable and bright. Nor did she talk too much; she let the songs do most of the talking for her and that worked. It was a breakthrough show. It will surely be back at Birdland sometime in the near future. This is the Hilary Kole we've all been waiting for.

2 ½ Stars: Tsidii Le Loka in Concert at Joe's Pub

Tsidii Le Loka may be one of the most talented women to ever grace a Broadway stage, but the one-night-only concert she recently performed at Joe's Pub was an artistic disappointment. The irony was that you could see and hear how amazing she is – and we're not just talking about the "clicking" she does when she sings – but the show, itself, was an uninspiring mix of music that was often performed in a self-indulgent manner that ultimately undercut whatever impact it might have made. Too bad, because she has a new CD called Here's to the Night.

We like African music, and certainly the harmonies she created with her three backup singers were beautiful to hear. But too often the songs she performed (many of them written in part, by Le Loka, herself) lacked dimension; they simply didn't go anywhere. Le Loka's voice soared, her amazing eyes flashed, she spoke eloquently but too long. The show dragged. And if you were waiting for her to sing "The Circle of Life" from The Lion King, for which she was Tony-nominated, it was never going to happen. It was just not that kind of show. To wit, we didn't buy this Tsidii.

Show ... and Tell:

Lest there be any confusion, though Brandon Cutrell and pianist Ray Fellman left The Duplex to put on The After Party at the Laurie Beechman Theatre on Friday nights for the post theater crowd, the show that they originated at The Duplex, Mostly Sondheim, continues at the Village club every Friday night at 11 p.m. with Kate Pazakis as the belting hostess and Brian Nash at the piano. Pazakis worked with Cutrell at The Duplex so the torch has been easily passed. We expect that Cutrell's show will get the early crowd and Pazakis will get the late crowd, but only time will tell if there is enough audience to go around for two such shows on a Friday night.

Lennie Watts
Lennie Watts
Lots of action over at the new Metropolitan Room at Gotham on West 22nd Street. The room's booking manager, Lennie Watts is bringing his critically acclaimed show, And Further More, to the new digs on Monday, July 31st at 7 p.m., plus additional dates on Sunday August 6 and Monday August 7 at 7 p.m. Your last chance to see Amy Wolk's Wolk in Progress will be on Monday, July 31 at 9:30 PM. And one of our favorites, the musical comedy trio Modern Man will be peforming for one night only on Wednesday, August 2nd at 8 p.m. Among many other worthy shows at this hot club, you can catch the cabaret debut of musical theater star Andrea Burns on Monday, August 14th at 10 p.m.

Tony Award-winner Cady Huffman is putting on her first one-woman show at Ars Nova on Sunday, August 20 at 7 p.m. and Monday, August 21 at 8 p.m. She'll be telling her own story, including her start in show business as an operatic soprano to her Broadway debut as a drag queen. Her musical choices will be just as far-ranging - from rock 'n' roll to Sondheim. This should be genuinely memorable. We are so there!

-- Barbara and Scott Siegel

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