The Two of Clubs
September Song: An incredible month of cabaret
September has turned out to be one of the best months in a very long time for cabaret. And that's true in terms of the abundance of talent in clubs both big and small, but also wherever we've been in a boîte (which has been pretty often these last few weeks), the rooms have rarely been anything but packed. It's not a surprise that there has been so much talent on display, but in the face of a crumbling economy, it's heartening to see so many people forking over good money to see good people. Lord knows that doesn't happen all the time.
It began early in the month with Michael Feinstein's Sinatra Project. We heard from a reliable source that they turned more than 400 people away at the door for this five performance extravaganza that featured Feinstein fronting a seventeen-piece band and singing some of Sinatra's greatest standards. Happily, he'll be back in December to reprise that show. We caught Ashford & Simpson at Feinstein's a couple of weeks later at a Friday night late show, traditionally the slowest and toughest night to fill. The club was exceptionally well attendedand at Feinstein prices, that is mighty impressive. But then again, so was the show. Ashford & Simpson put together a generous show that ran about an hour and twenty minutes and included their hits as well as a look-see at the musical they're writing for (they hope) Broadway. It ain't bad. As for their nightclub act, it's full of energy and a genuine joy in performing. They put on a fun show even if (as is the case with us) their music was not at the forefront of our musical taste. They have become an annual attraction at Feinstein's and this act, which concluded last Saturday, shows why.
Nikki Blonsky: Too Soon for the Room
Ashford & Simpson were followed at Feinstein's by Nikki Blonsky, the young star of the film version of Hairspray. She opened last night with an act that will run through October 4th. In the past we have praised the nightclub for its bold booking of unexpected entertainment choices. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't, but we appreciate the risk-taking. In this particular case, the talented but raw Ms. Blonsky does not belong at Feinstein'sat least not yet. She has a versatile voice, but her act is not nearly polished enough to command a $60 cover and a $40 minimum. She's game but out of her depth in a room that usually offers its patrons some of the most sophisticated and accomplished performers that money can buy.
Give Blonsky credit for trying, and she deserves praise for her ability to effectively cover such tunes as "By the Sea" from Sweeney Todd with a pretty good Angela Lansbury impression, and "Crazy" with a solid take on Patsy Cline's delivery. The problem is her strengths are also her weaknesses. Her act is largely a series of covers in which she either imitates performers or delivers famous songs like "Dream a Little Dream of Me" or "Don't Rain on My Parade" with no personal style of her own. She can sing, no question, but that's not quite enough by itself.
A lot of the mistakes she makes are the kinds of errors we've seen many a seasoned pro fall prey to, such as asking the audience over and over if they're having a good time; it always reads like a cheap ploy for approval and applause. Like so many others, she also makes a point of telling us how much she enjoyed the evening. Well, it's not about how much she enjoyed the evening, it's about how much the audience enjoyed the evening. Too many of today's entertainers seem to think the audience is there to please them rather than that they are there to please the audience. To be fair, these kinds of mistakes would not be quite so glaring in Blonsky's show if not for the weak patter that surrounds them. The ultimate takeaway is that, with seasoning and experience, this talented young woman is capable of putting on a powerhouse nightclub act. But not now, and not at Feinstein's.
Martin Geiger: polished and poised
From Manhattan's most pricey room to its most reasonable, Don't Tell Mama, the story takes a turn. In this instance, also a relative newcomer to cabaret, Martin Geiger, put on a polished act and held forth in front of a sold out audience to perform a show sweetly devoted to the personal and musical memories of summer. Most of his act was extremely well written and beautifully constructed. Only toward the end did it veer away from his summer theme and suddenly morph into a show about travel.
Nonetheless, the show's song selection was outstanding, mixing both familiar and unfamiliar songs in a healthy balance, and most importantly, setting each song up with endearing personal anecdotes that helped the audience access each song in a fresh, new way. Geiger is a lawyer by trade and if his voice is not his strongest suit, one must give him credit for communicating his lyrics in a manner that would convince a jury of their truth. Having seen Geiger's first cabaret act last year, we can also say that this sophomore effort shows noticeable improvement in his easy, genial delivery; it bespeaks a comfort level on stage that a lot of more seasoned performers would envy.
Betty Buckley at Birdland: Wow!
In a month that has included the likes of Barb Jungr and Marilyn Maye (reviews of their recent shows will appear in a future column), as well as John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey (reviewed in an earlier column), the cherry on top of this month's pile-up of talent has got to be the week-long engagement at Birdland of the iconic Betty Buckley. She opened last night in a breathtaking act that runs through September 27th. She made a point of saying that she wasn't going to sing any show tunes, but when Betty Buckley performs, it is musical theater in very best sense of the word; she is a consummate actress who sings lyric-driven songs and you will be riveted not just by the music but also by the message.
Her song selection is outstanding with a perfect balance of standards and contemporary tunes. She starts off with several solid efforts, putting her jazz spin on songs like "How Deep is the Ocean" and "Autumn Leaves," but by the time she gets to her soulful version of "Skylark," very early in the show, the act becomes one sensational highlight after another. To name just a few, she puts over a thrilling ""Since I Fell For You" that leaves jazz behind and forays into the blues (with a belt!). Her haunting rendition of "Ghost in This House" offers the combination of being both the most beautiful and most heartbreaking song you will ever hear. And she just might reduce you to tears, as she did to us, when you hear her sing "Take It With Me When I Go."
Buckley's show at Birdland is billed as an evening of jazz. Certainly her four-piece band has jazz written all over it, with special mention going to Billy Drewes on reeds who is often featured. But regardless of the idiom, any act that includes music by James Taylor, Irving Berlin, Antonio Carlos Jobim, The Gershwins, Michael McDonald, Bob Dylan, Abbey Lincoln and Tom Waits, to name just some of the composers, is so wildly eclectic that the only common denominator isn't the jazz arrangements, it's Betty Buckley's fierce talent. Perhaps that's why the show's title is so perfect: Betty Buckley: The Music. She's performing two shows per night, and she is not to be missed.