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Sound Advice Reviews

Cabaret ladies

Although they are different types of cabaret ladies, the first more Broadway and big-voiced, the other a low-key but graceful presence, both have recent CDs and will be back in Manhattan clubs in the first week of April. And both include the teams of Kander & Ebb and Ahrens & Flaherty on their recordings, which are rewarding additions to a record library. Their other connection is a skill at audience connection, the cabaret essential.

CHRISTIANE NOLL
GIFTS
LIVE AT 54 BELOW

Broadway Records

Christiane Noll grew up surrounded by music: a pianist/conductor father, a singing mother, and a huge record library. With gratitude and glee evident, and splashes of down-to-earth, self-deprecating humor, she cheerfully chatters on this recording about childhood (her own and her daughter's), girlhood and goals, thriving on theatre throughout. Directed by Bill Castellino, the act is spunky, punctuated by songs. They are done in full or in part, often in full voice. There are songs she heard, obsessed on, auditioned with, sang to audiences of hundreds (a sturdy and involving "In His Eyes" from Jekyll & Hyde, which had put her on many a radar) and one she crooned one-on-one to her newborn baby (a tender, awestruck "Send in the Clowns").

Recorded at 54 Below while she was appearing as the mother in Chaplin, Christiane Noll sings prettily, powerfully and perkily, accompanied by versatile Ross Patterson on piano. (They've worked together numerous times in the Broadway concerts at The Town Hall hosted by Scott Siegel.) Along with the patter and Patterson, there's an appreciative audience and a cavalcade of music including operetta snippets and selections from the score that addicted many a little girl then and now: Annie. Basically, we're along for the recollected ride as we hear the soundtrack of her life, from the wistful (but determined) opener "Somewhere Out There," from the soundtrack of the animated film An American Tale, through two Kander & Ebb film songs ("How Lucky Can You Get," "But the World Goes 'Round"). She doesn't reprise anything from the soundtrack of the animated film she voiced, Rodgers & Hammerstein's The King and I, but highlights include two other R&H classics: "Some Enchanted Evening" and "The Sound of Music." Both are vocally lovely, but are also infused with wonder and a sense of thoughtfulness and drinking in moments, rather than full-steam-ahead bravura belting. However, if that's what you seek, you get that elsewhere, in items like "I Want It All" from the score of Maltby & Shire's Baby. There's also a generous helping of glorious "legit" soprano sounds, a dash of Mozart, a brief brash imitation of her daughter bellowing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" to a bully, and show tunes galore. You want it all? You got it.

The Noll role in the Ragtime revival is represented by "Back to Before" in a somewhat more reserved and reflective rendition that is thus not redundant. She seems bound and determined to almost relive and relish her life through this autobiographical show, cuddling up with—and clinging to—her cherished memories. She dotes on her departed dad and darling daughter, and imitates her own girlhood voice as she struggled for a vocal identity different from that of her mother, who's in the audience. Ahrens & Flaherty are also on the set list with a plucky/pleading/playful "Waiting for Life" from Once on This Island.

Although the charmed-life anecdotes of home and hearth and heartfelt appreciation can be lengthy, the longer ones are tracked separately and thus can be skipped over if desired. However, this is a good example of a recording that can really demonstrate what a cabaret act is like, how songs can be set up with stories and personalized. Memories or life philosophies or new perspectives on older incidents create context which would be absent otherwise and just seem like one more recital or mishmash. There's no feeling of "I guess you had to be there" this time—with everything seemingly included in the lengthy album, from the opening announcement to the cheers accompanying the exit after the encore of "Mr. Paganini" ("You'll Have to Swing It")—also included on Christiane's earlier live album).

Along with the other acts recorded at this instantly invaluable venue (Patti LuPone and Norbert Leo Butz, with Andrea McArdle and more on the way), the Broadway Consortium executive producers Van Dean and Kenny Howard deserve what these singers themselves often get at this nightclub where I've been spending many a night: a standing ovation. I look forward to more to come to capture the excitement and splash—and intimacy—that can come from a cabaret when a stage-savvy Broadwayite opens up (vocally or psychologically, or both). That's the kind of opening night that can live on.

Christiane Noll's show, Gifts, returns to 54 Below in Manhattan's theatre district, on April 4th.

RUTH CARLIN
MOON SONG

As any true lover of cabaret knows, you don't have to have a big and brassy voice to connect to audiences and songs. Ruth Carlin is a sensitive soul who doesn't boast a large, powerhouse voice, but she's quite effective and can capture a listener with her disarming projection of deeply felt emotions and thoughts. A real humanity and integrity are evident in the gentle singing and persona, whether the main impression is that of one who's older and wiser and ready to pass on a hard-learned lesson—a fragile lady tentatively adventuring through life. One vacillates between wanting to protect her and sitting up because she seems to have comforting of her own—or wisdom—to impart. Reinforcing the reality of what arguably could be just the craft of an actress (which she's been) is that some of the words she'll intone are her own. Her CD, Moon Song, is bookended by open-hearted, plaintive originals: "My Moon Song" as the opener, and closing with "Door to Door." They reference music itself, as well as life's (here comes that dreaded but unavoidable cabaret clichĂ© word) journeys.

A collaboration with Ben Scheuer, "Ghosts of Love" bookends the lovely, loving Judy Collins piece "Since You've Asked." Evident is an affinity for folk songs, with their storytelling/truth-telling aspects, soul-bearing and eschewing of the slick. An album focused on that genre might be a wise move in the future. (Joni Mitchell's bittersweet classic "The Circle Game" is further persuasive evidence here). But cabaret's natural verisimilitude master brings that bone honesty and warmth to pop and theatre music here, too. From The Act, tailored for Liza Minnelli by Kander & Ebb, "My Own Space" becomes less of a pleading bleeding heart and more of a sober, well-thought-out agreement between mature lovers. And "The Song of Old Lovers" takes Jacques Brel's melancholy melody, with the Des de Moor's English translation of the lyric, to a darker and richer place bespeaking time well spent with some ripples and storms in the smooth sailing of long-term relationships. Broadway's Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty pop up twice; in both cases, we're hearing songs cut from their scores: with an especially supportive "Come Down from That Tree" with its "I've been there" sense (a number cut from Once on This Island which several singers have dug up in the past) and "Shoes" (trimmed from Lucky Stiff). Also welcome is "My Most Important Moments Go By" by Gretchen Cryer and Nancy Ford, originally heard in their quirky musical The Last Sweet Days of Isaac. It's one more wise choice here for a singer who so well embodies the sense of wanting to embrace life, but having a shyness that sometimes gets in the way.

The quaint quiver and quaver in the voice that's often present is, perhaps, both a blessing and a curse: in a Piaf kind of way, it makes everything seem all the more human and tender, but can be so front-and-center to the ear in an audio recording of a more limited voice that it overshadows other qualities and brings a similarity of tone and color. While not so pronounced or forceful, like the memorable voice of folk singer Buffy St. Marie whose wide vibrato became a braying and sometimes harsh sound, it's still dominant and prominent. With repeat listens, it becomes less distracting and more just intrinsic and characteristic. In performance (and I've seen Ruth in cabaret rooms several times), we get the full picture of a voice and look that go together—an understated but focused lady with a head full of curls and thoughts, where it almost seems shocking that people at tables are brought beers instead of chrysanthemum herbal tea and one can imagine her strumming a guitar. Instead, seasoned player Ken Sebesky is the guitarist on four tracks here, including a highlight track finding two sentimentally romantic Beatles songs snuggling up against each other: "If I Fell" and "I Will." Other musicians guest on one or two tracks, but the mega-experienced core band is arranger/pianist Paul Greenwood (a classy New York cabaret institution), bassist Dick Sarpola and John Redsecker on percussion. Arrangements never overpower, but amplify the subtext and become fellow tip-toeing walking partners when need be.

Ruth Carlin's official CD launch shows are on April 6 and 18 at the Laurie Beechman Theatre inside the West Bank Café on Manhattan's Theatre Row. As usual, audiences pay a cover charge and there's a minimum, but each audience member also gets a copy of this CD to bring the warmth home (even if spring in NYC continues to procrastinate).


- Rob Lester


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