Barbara and Scott
The Two of Clubs

Ebersole & Stritch: Having dessert before the main course

Christine Ebersole is like a Tartufo. You know, the Italian dessert that has a hard, frozen chocolate covering? Once you crack the outer shell, you are rewarded with a generous scoop of ice cream. And let's not forget the nuts buried deep in the center of the ice cream. So, yes, Christine Ebersole seems hard and brittle on the outside, but like the Tartufo she is soft on the inside. And, yes, happily, she's a little nuts, too. She had to be nuts to recently introduce a brand new cabaret act at the Metropolitan Room called Sunday in New York. She put it together with her musical director and singing partner Billy Stritch, and they performed a short run at the end of the summer. Not only did she do this just before going into rehearsals for the Broadway transfer of Grey Gardens, she did it exceedingly well. No thrown together hodgepodge, this was a carefully constructed, beautifully conceived, and exceptionally well-performed show.

Sunday in New York was a seamless blend of old and new material, about half of it performed in their act for the first time. Ebersole wisely kept her audience (and critic) pleasing version of "Lullaby of Broadway" from 42nd Street (a show that brought her a Tony Award) as well as a handful of other songs she performed in recent acts either at Feinstein's or at Birdland. Our only complaint was the sound balance; the drums were too loud and Stritch's microphone seemed set a little too low. But these are minor issues compared to the soaring highlights, chief among them Ebersole's haunting version of Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do?," and what will surely become (if it isn't already) one of her signature songs, "Will You?" from Grey Gardens (Michael Korie and Scott Frankel).

Billy Stritch has a big part in this show, going well beyond being Ebersole's musical director. A true collaboration, Stritch also sings a number of songs in his swinging jazz style that nicely balance her more theatrical sensibility. Stritch also brings his quick wit and playful personality to the act; he and Ebersole are exceedingly funny together. It is, in fact, their chemistry both as entertainers and as musicians that make this act so much fun. Surely, Sunday in New York will be back again whenever Ebersole can find the time to perform it.

Natalie Douglas: She's got the goods

Natalie Douglas
Natalie Douglas
Photo: Mark Rupp
Natalie Douglas put on a stirring display of her vocal talent in her recent one-night-only performance at Birdland of a new cabaret act called Black, White & Blues. Part of Jim Caruso's immaculately booked early Monday night shows that precede his ever-popular late Monday night Cast Party extravaganzas, this was Natalie Douglas singing songs that came right out of her soul. A very personal show with universal appeal, Douglas used fondly remembered family members as the touchstones for her musical choices; the results ranged from funny to heartbreaking. And, oh, what a voice!

Douglas is a smart and witty performer who is as comfortable talking on stage as she is singing. Her patter is never forced nor does it ever seem written. She just talks to us and we laugh. When a performer has a one-night-only cabaret/concert event, however, there is a tendency to try to either say or do too much. In this particular instance, Douglas was sailing along fine until late in her show when she began digressing into politics and started talking too long between songs. Her passion was clear and real but it hurt the flow of her show. No doubt she'll rein that in when she continues to perform this show in New York and around the country.

As is always the case in show business, there are relatively few performers who come up through the ranks to establish viable careers. In cabaret, Natalie Douglas is one of those entertainers who does the work and gets the gigs. She played to a full and enthusiastic house at Birdland and it's clear that she is not complacent or satisfied; she is still growing as an artist and that's an exciting thing to watch.

The Rat Pack

3 Men and a Baby GrandPassing through New York with their Rat Pack Show, the amusingly titled group 3 Men and a Baby Grand played at the Metropolitan Room last week and made a strong impression. The trio made it clear from the start that they were not going to impersonate Frank, Dean and Sammy. It was their intention to simply celebrate those pop icons by singing some of the songs that they made famous. Based on that agenda, they did not disappoint. Two of the three (and the Baby Grand) were, in fact, particularly well-suited to the work.

Pianist and vocalist Johnny Rodgers was the revelation in the show. Loose, hip, witty, and singing with style, he captured the playful wise-guy nature of the original rat pack, but he wasn't putting it on; he was free and easy and entirely himself. Baritone Lee Lessack was also winning; he's unbeatable on a ballad and he scored whenever the show slowed down enough to allow for some romance and emotion. Only Brian Lane Green, a tenor with a bright sound and a willingness to please, seemed out of place in this act. Perhaps he was trying too hard to please. Or perhaps, through no fault of his own his personality simply does not resonate with the rat pack style.

Overall, however, the show is fast-paced, light fun and full of the tightest, most beautiful harmonies you are likely to hear in a cabaret club. To be blunt, it is far superior to any other rat pack show we've seen so far.

Not Your Mama's Cabaret

Greg Portz and Ashley King
Greg Portz and Ashley King
Their names are Ashley King and Greg Portz. They are either a future version of Kiki & Herb or a train wreck. Or both. Young, raw but not untalented, this duo has put together a musical monologue called A Fist Full of Love with sparks of inventive comedy that sometimes flare up into sudden laughter. Okay, it doesn't happen often, but Kiki & Herb weren't a laugh riot when they started out, either.

Young and pretty Ashley looking like a Carly Simon at twenty - plays the piano and provides vocal support. Remarkably, she stays in character throughout the entire show, never cracking a smile. She is the object of Greg's story, which is a long-winded comic grotesque about first working with her, then losing her, then searching for her again years later. Greg is a purposefully pleasant-looking, bespectacled young man whose milquetoast manner is in sharp contrast to his outrageous declarations. It's all pretty silly, nasty, stupid and occasionally funny. It's as if some clever sophomoric humor suddenly gushes up from a freshman effort.

There's a considerable amount of singing in this show, some of it original material, some of it relatively well-known tunes performed in ways that are akin to rape. And it's almost always too loud. Way too loud.

Folks, this is a taste issue or should we say a tasteless issue? These two have talent and it can either be refined, polished and improved or they'll simply disappear. They have one more show tonight at Danny's Skylight Room at 9:15 PM. You've been warned.

-- Barbara and Scott Siegel

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