The Two of Clubs
Some of the most memorable performances in New York's nightclubs are coming as the result of either one-night-only performances or otherwise very short runs of two or three nights. With relatively rare exceptions the days of the extended run are over. The only consistent exceptions are in the big, prestige rooms, so we begin with a review from one of them at the Café Carlyle. After that, we'll give you a rundown on some of the striking, exciting, unexpected and oftentimes exceptional short runs that we've seen lately.
Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. at the Café Carlyle
Pop stars Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr. begin their act at the Café Carlyle with some hard sledding through little bits and pieces of songs as they patch together their early autobiographies through music. Unfortunately, little bits of songs are hardly satisfying and none of it lands. It isn't until they pull out of this early nose dive to start singing songs from start to finish that the sun shines through (so to speak). In case you didn't know their names, McCoo and Davis were two of the five members of the famous Fifth Dimension that recorded such hits as "Up, Up & Away," "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" and "Wedding Bell Blues."
Curiously, though, that terrible opening aside, their least satisfying numbers are their most famous Fifth Dimension songs. Despite vocal help from their band, they simply can not duplicate the sensational vocal harmonics of the original group. You might say they sound two-dimensional. On the other hand, when each of them perform solo numbers, the show is at its very best. Billy Davis, Jr. singing gospel is thrilling. So is his turn at an R & B number. Actually, pretty much anything Davis did alone is pretty stunning. McCoo scores best on "One Less Bell to Answer," giving the song a rich combination of belt and wail. McCoo also demonstrates her jazz chops to fine effect with "The End of a Love Affair."
The less said about their patter, the better. Or maybe we should say the less patter they speak, the better. Brittle and arch, there is nothing natural or appealing about it, though they did tell one really great story about how they came to record the songs from Hair, which essentially made their career. Which, by the way, will be marked by their 39th wedding anniversary later this year. So much for their wedding bell blues.
McCoo and Davis play the Café Carlyle through May 31st.
Rachel York arrived at the Metropolitan Room recently to perform for just one evening. She is one of those "big" performers who some say would be too big for an intimate cabaret room; we say the proximity of walls has no bearing on someone who has a big voice, a big personality, and a big talent. Her show was called "For the Love of It" and it was, happily, not an evening of love songs but rather an evening of songs Ms. York loves to sing. She opened with a rousing "Don't Rain on My Parade" and grabbed the crowd by the throat right at the outset.
Ms. York's Broadway persona is that of a vampy comedienne, but she performed a stunning version of "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miz and an emotionally potent "Back to Before" from Ragtime in which she was so intense that she actually made herself cry. Oh, she was pretty funny, too, but the real revelation was her versatility. Blues, torch songs, comedy impressions; she was constantly surprising and entertaining. It was one night, but it was a night to remember.
Another one night only event at the Metropolitan Room featured The Gatlin Brothers, presented by Jamie deRoy & Friends. It was a deliciously long, rambunctious evening full of hit country tunes and hilarious banter by the group's leader, Larry Gatlin. The place was packed, but few in this New York crowd really knew their hit songs, which became a gag throughout the evening. It wasn't long before Larry Gatlin had the audience singing along anyway. The show could not have been more fun. Ms. deRoy deserves much credit for bringing these country icons to a cabaret stage to share their special brand of magic.
A one-night only tribute to the collaboration of Wally Harper (music) and Sherman Yellen (book and lyrics) at the Donnell Public Library's theater revealed a wealth of creativity in two unproduced musicals. Presented as two partially staged readings directed by John Znidarsic and featuring two talented casts that featured, among others, Malcolm Gets, the evening was indeed special. Forget that Barbara Cook watched with warmth and affection from the rear of the theater as the evening celebrated the work of her famous late musical director, Mr. Harper. What mattered most was the impressive musical variety of Mr. Harper, the composer, and the witty and wonderfully complex lyrics by Mr. Yellen, the wordsmith. Technically, it was not cabaret, but neither was it a concert or a production, so let's just say it was yet another special one night event.
Back at the Metropolitan Room, California-based Sharon McNight came into town for two nights and raised hell - and packed the place - with a show that was as funny as it was musically explosive. When Ms. McNight enters a room, her personality arrives ten minutes in advance, filling the space with a commanding presence that keeps you riveted to whatever she decides to do. And she can do almost anything. And does. Whether she's performing a huge chunk of The Wizard of Oz and playing all the characters - a tour de force that will have on the floor, laughing - or singing what has become her signature song, Mary Liz McNamara's brilliant comedy number "Bacon," McNight never fails to ignite.
The ever-popular Metropolitan Room has been pioneering yet another format, the once-a-month gig, in which an entertainer of note skips the usual once a week routine to stretch their run over several months. A current performer trying this out is Marcus Simeone, who booked three Sunday nights: one in April, one in May, and the last one coming up at 7 pm on June 1st.
Simeone's show, The Heart, is among the best he's done, ranking with his Johnny Mathis act of a couple of years ago. But let's understand something about Mr. Simeone; he is not like the other cabaret performers reviewed in this column. He is not a lyric interpreter in the cabaret mold but, rather, a pop singer who performs in musical phrases. Give him a song like the newly written but old-fashioned '50s style pop number "Just One Kiss" (Robert Vega/Jason Darrow) and he'll hit it out of the park. A song called "Never Left Behind" (Peter Malis/Marcus Simeone), however, doesn't work nearly so well, though the problem might actually be that the fussy arrangement is getting in his way. A more simply arranged number like "No One Like You" (David Zippel/Jerry Goldsmith) works extremely well because much of it just features Simeone and a guitar. Simeone's high-flying tenor might not accentuate the right word in a lyric line but it sounds good in a pop tune where he can ride the hook, as he does so well in the show's title number by Stephen Schwartz and Jason Darrow.