Broadway Downtown Series at The Duplex
by Warren Hoffman

The Duplex "Broadway Downtown" Series
Monday, January 31: Barbara Walsh
Monday, February 7: Sally Mayes
Monday, February 28, 7pm: Liz McCartney has been canceled
Monday, February 28, 7pm: Darius DeHaas
Monday, February 28, 9:30pm: Judy Blazer w/ Steve Marzullo
Monday, March 7: Christiane Noll
Monday, March 21: Barrett Foa
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Christiane Noll

A few years ago I had the good fortune to pick up a copy of Christiane Noll's amazing CD Live at the West Bank Café: An Evening of Jazz with David Budway. Though I never got to catch Ms. Noll's performance in person, I was dazzled by the CD and it remains a frequent disc on my stereo. It was with much excitement, then, that I went to check out Ms. Noll's new cabaret evening at the Duplex last night (again with musical direction by Mr. Budway). Sadly, though, this new evening lacks the coherence of Ms. Noll's previous outing of polished jazz songs and is something of a disappointment.

I should say that my admiration and amazement of Ms. Noll's prodigious talent remains unflagging. As the evening makes clear, Ms. Noll possesses an amazing vocal range that can move from jazz and show tunes to opera as evidenced in her awkward opening number which starts with a sing-a-long of the Petula Clark hit "Downtown," but quickly shifts into the unfunny opera specialty number "Art is Calling for Me" that shows off Ms. Noll's sky-high soprano notes. Ms. Noll's musical versatility, though impressive, is also her major weakness here as her show jumps from one musical style to another without focus. Soprano ballad number? Check. Perky, yet belty theater song ("How Lucky Can You Get?)? Check. Scatting jazz number ("Mr. Paganini, You'll Have to Swing it"). Check. It's not that Noll doesn't succeed with these pieces, but they don't blend together into a unified program.

That's not to say that the evening doesn't soar in certain places. Ms. Noll is most successful when singing in her belty mid register, and ironically scores big time in "Waiting for Life" from the black musical Once on This Island. Too bad she'll never be cast in that show! And, speaking of casting, she's also winning when reliving some past audition experiences gone wrong. From a hysterically funny lachrymose audition number about death for The Secret Garden to being told to sing "Everybody Says Don't" in the persona of Squeaky Fromme in her audition for Sondheim's Assassins, Noll isn't afraid to poke fun at herself.

Despite these numbers, much of the evening lacks flair. Though spare intimate arrangements can be good, Budway's arrangements, which could stand to be beefed up by other instruments, border on dull. Other times, he and Ms. Noll have chosen odd tempos and phrasings for some of the numbers, including a slowish "West End Avenue" that lacks drive and a drawn out version of "Something Wonderful" that made my mind wander.

The program closes with a beautiful medley of "Children Will Listen" and "Children of the Wind," but it's the opera-inflected encore of "The Sound of Music" that is particularly out of place. Again in a concert program with a full orchestra (say with the New York Pops?), such a rendition would be fine, but within the intimate confines of a cabaret space, such a staid selection is incongruous and distancing. I definitely look forward to hearing Ms. Noll again, but hopefully she'll rethink some of her choices for her next foray into cabaret and stick to belting show tunes for which her voice is so ideally suited.

Judy Blazer

The ever delightful Judy Blazer offered her new cabaret show at the Duplex last evening in a state of what Blazer termed "workshop." It was an appropriate word to describe her show-in-progress, and though her act needs a great deal of shaping and pruning to get it into fighting condition, there are a lot of gems in the offering.

Blazer never hesitates to poke fun at herself and others, and the evening is packed with verbose, yet funny patter and anecdotes about her parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends and former co-stars, all of whom seemed to be in attendance last night. Blazer is a natural comedian, but it's her voice that is the real draw: a warm, rich instrument with a wide commanding range. Given her prodigious talent, Blazer would be wise to follow the motto of most radio stations, "More music, less talk" and provide her audiences with more songs.

Opening with a wonderfully jazzy 1920s-inflected number worthy of The Boyfriend, Blazer was in a playful mood all evening. The bulk of the program consisted of songs by Blazer's talented musical director Steve Marzullo, who composed what might be termed "art song-ettes," short sparkling bits of poetry by writers such as Dorothy Parker, e.e. cummings, and Calvin Trillin set to music. The songs are witty and tuneful, making me wish that Marzullo would write longer pieces to really show what he's capable of. Blazer also offered some standards along the way, including a splendid interpretation of "If I Loved You," and a naughty "You Took Advantage of Me" by Rodgers and Hart.

Hands down the high point of the evening was Blazer's eerily dead-on impersonation of Judy Garland (in her lower register, Blazer sounds a little like Garland even when she isn't impersonating the diva). Imagining what Judy might sound like doing a contemporary musical, Blazer had the sold-out crowd rolling in the aisles laughing with her "Judy Sings Songs from Sweeney Todd Medley." Given the audience's enthusiastic reception, perhaps Blazer could do a whole evening of Judy?

Blazer has a lot of material to draw on and with some trimming she'll have one hell of an act. For now, we have a tasty sampling of what's to come.

Sally Mayes

Like Dolly Levi returning to the Harmonia Gardens, it’s great having Sally Mayes back in the world of cabaret after a four-year absence. Mayes made her NYC return last night at the Duplex as part of the Broadway Downtown series to celebrate the release of her brand-new CD Valentine. An actress and singer with a large fan base, Mayes, in her new set, turned away from some of the comedy songs she is most known for and instead focused her attention on jazzy standards. Mayes’ Broadway razzmatazz melded effortlessly with these lush and occasionally cookin’ jazz numbers, though some selections clearly stood out over others.

At heart, Mayes is a self-proclaimed comedian, so the evening really soared on songs that showed off her rockin’ playful demeanor. “The Best is Yet to Come,” her tribute to the recently passed Cy Coleman (who wrote the score to Mayes’ Broadway debut show Welcome to the Club) was a total wow as she belted to hilt. Harry Warren’s “No Love, No Nothin’” was also a knock-your-socks-off winner as Mayes allowed her rich and expansive voice to cut loose. She found similar rewards in a close harmony duet of “My Funny Valentine” with guest musician (and longtime friend) Billy Stritch, who popped in for the evening. The two merged seamlessly in sharp vocal synchronization and put their definitive stamp on this oft-performed chestnut.

Though Mayes was most at ease with brassy swinging numbers, that’s not to say she didn’t reveal a tender, thoughtful side as well. Her opening number, “My Romance,” as orchestrated by arranger Jeff Klitz, brought a dark, contemplative, and bluesy color to the Rodgers and Hart standard that was absolutely stunning. (She returned to this number at the end of the show in an upbeat version that was equally entertaining.) Mayes also sparkled with a starkly paired down version of the song “Angel Eyes” for which she was accompanied almost exclusively by bass and drums, allowing the simplicity of the song to emerge with an effortless poignancy.

Some of Mayes’ other numbers, while pleasant, didn’t register as strongly, and for me, her voice evokes more the sparkle of the Broadway stage than the smoky stylings of a jazz performer. Indeed, the bright “sparkliness” of her voice sometimes clashed with the beautifully mournful quality of Klitz’s arrangements. Tellingly, Mayes’ encore for the evening was the comic punning number “There’s Viagra in the Water,” a song that was miles away from the rest of the evening, yet one that clearly showed off Mayes’ major strength: performing story songs that make people laugh.

No matter what Mayes is singing, though, she remains a major contender on the cabaret circuit and hopefully will not disappear for another four years. With February 14th around the corner, Mayes’s new CD Valentine, available this week, would make a great gift for a loved one, but truly, nothing beats live, especially when Mayes is the real deal.

Barbara Walsh

It's hard to say which is Barbara Walsh's stronger suit, stirring dramatic songs that reveal emotional depth or an uncanny talent for celebrity impersonations. One could find plenty of both in Walsh's cabaret act which had a one-night run last evening at the Duplex Cabaret Theater as the first entry in a new concert series entitled Broadway Downtown. Phil Geoffrey Bond has made a name for himself as a first-class cabaret booker at the Duplex, and this new series is no exception. By offering name talent at a reasonable price, this series should sell out quickly.

Currently starring in Hairspray, Barbara Walsh is no stranger to Broadway (her many credits include Falsettos, Big, and an Off-Broadway run with Forbidden Broadway), and she brings her immense talents to the intimate Duplex space. Opening with a lush and riveting rendition of the song "White Bird" (by David and Linda LaFlamme) and following it with the folksy number "The Song Remembers Well," Walsh presented a smart evening that combined some well-known pop tunes with lesser-known theater songs. Eschewing standards, Walsh's program included some choice Michael John LaChiusa numbers, including "Tom" from Hello Again, a few Beatles hits, and a couple of fresh cabaret compositions by writers Ellen Weiss, Kim Oler, and Alison Hubbard, all tidily packaged and polished under the musical direction of Mary Mitchell Campbell.

Walsh easily found the dramatic line in songs such as Jeff Blumenkrantz's "I Won't Mind" and gave a poignant reading of one of her signature songs, "Holding to the Ground" from William Finn's Falsettos. If her choice of the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There" with its rock and roll stylings seemed a little out of place in comparison with some of the evening's other offerings, the song was enthusiastically executed by Walsh's backup quartet of piano, drums, violin, and bass.

Walsh is also a side-splittingly funny comedian and, in addition to her tongue-in-cheek patter, she has a keen knack for mimicry. She did a mean version of noted Broadway director/choreographer Graciela Daniele, and in one of the highlights of the show, impersonated Meryl Streep who, in Walsh's send-up, has been approached by Fran Weissler (who Walsh also apes) to do a musical version of Out of Africa. Her characterization of Streep was dead on, but it's when Fran Weissler decides to replace Streep with Barbra Streisand that Walsh was astonishing with a hysterical take on Babs that was downright eerie. Walsh scored as well in a literally fall-on-floor laughing number by Pat Cook entitled "Thank You, Jacques Brel," a send-up of Brel's at times morbid and wretched characters and musical oeuvre.

The show concluded with stunning versions of the Joni Mitchell tunes "Song to a Seagull" and "Both Sides Now" that showed off Walsh's powerful yet controlled vocal belt. One hopes that Walsh will bring this act back soon as it definitely deserves a longer run. If her act is a barometer for the performers to appear in coming weeks, cabaretgoers should plan to spend their Monday nights for the next seven weeks at the Duplex.

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