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Cabaret Spotlight: Hey There, Good Times

The measure of a singer's worth is in the ear of the beholder. What is one person's Piaf is another person's Barbra. There's no magic formula to being one of the great ones. All one can do is be dedicated to the art and have a willingness to experiment and keep at it come rain or shine. The rest is a matter of luck and timing, talent and tenacity. For some, the call might come late. But when answered, there's no turning back.

After a hiatus, Cabaret Spotlight is back. You’re welcome. A lot to catch up on; one show at a time.

A thought: The measure of a singer’s worth is in the ear of the beholder. What is one person’s Piaf is another person’s Barbra. There’s no magic formula to being one of the great ones. All one can do is be dedicated to the art and have a willingness to experiment and keep at it come rain or shine. The rest is a matter of luck and timing, talent and tenacity. For some, the call might come late.  But when answered, there’s no turning back.

barbra-streisand-by-meijering-manupix

Barbra Streisand 1965. Image: Meijering Manupix

Speaking of talent and tenacity, two of cabaret’s most popular and visible events are coming up with the annual Bistro Awards at Gotham Comedy Club on March 13 and the MAC Awards at B.B. King’s on March 28. Both usually sell out and celebrate cabaret in a positive way.

While performers’ competing for awards remains debatable, the truth is that cabaret gets minimal attention from major press and recognition goes a long way in a milieu that has spawned a truckload of stars like Woody Allen (who practiced comedy at The Duplex), Tony Bennett (a singing waiter), Barry Manilow (who accompanied Bette Midler in pre-jingle days), Johnny Mathis (who started in a piano bar in San Francisco), Bette Midler (who lived above Marie’s Crisis and found serious recognition playing a gay bath house), Nina Simone (who also worked (briefly) for Jan Wallman at The Duplex), Barbra Streisand (enough said) – and even Marlene Dietrich who played violin in piano bars in Berlin until she broke her finger). Everyone needs a jumping off place. The list is long. Today, in a passive aggressive musical tech-world overwrought with confusion that allows Justin Bieber (who needs voice lessons) to become a billion dollar entity as a result of silly YouTube videos and overnight celebrities who can’t sing “Happy Birthday” in tune are treated like royalty by the mainstream press, recognition from within the cabaret community is especially relevant to neophytes and those climbing the ladder who take this refined art form seriously.

In the case of two recent examples of creativity trumps the commercial, while experimentation and individual voice rule over rote regurgitation of the same old genre tropes, there is a light. It’s called imagination. Theme or tribute shows, which can

Harnar & Sally Mayes

Harnar & Sally Maye

be any act built around the work of a singular songwriter, composing team, singer or entertainer, can be a challenging exercise in cabaret.

Jeff Harnar & KT Sullivan (no credit for flier)

Jeff Harnar & KT Sullivan (no credit for flier)

Most of the prominent artists’ and songwriters’ have already been honored by some of the best in the business. The list is endless. And, in an era filled with alt-cabaret acts vs. sophisticated and eclectic shows, the results are often mini-masterpieces such as two separate shows last season starring Jeff Harnar who collaborated with KT Sullivan on Our  Time: Sullivan & Harnar Sing Sondheim as well as another Harnar duo show, Double Take with Sally Mayes”.

Recently, two shows took on artists’ who have been less visible on the New York cabaret stages and proved themselves to be a cut above in their creativity, imagination and professionalism. They have been making the rounds for several months now and are worthy entries.

stacy-sullivan

Stacy Sullivan at the Metropolitan Room. Photo: Stephen Sorokoff

Stacy Sullivan at the Metropolitan Room. 

Few cabaret artists over the last decade have made the progress and been as lauded as Stacy Sullivan; and with good reason. She takes chances, thinks outside that box and is committed to her craft. In the case of A Night At the Troubador: Presenting Elton John and David Ackles, a compelling show that’s been popping up for several months now, the stage was set for something special when seen at the Metropolitan Room. The team delivered with multi-talented Mark Nadler serving as director/musical director and fast-rising musician Yasuhiko Fukuoka (Yaz) at the piano.

 

david-akles-circa-1969

David Ackles circa: 1969. Photo: After Dark Magazine

David Ackles 

While Elton John became a household name and international superstar, songwriter David Ackles, who passed away in 1999, remains lesser known beyond the music industry. This is unfortunate as he remains revered by many peers today and has influenced the likes of Elvis Costello, Phil Collins, Bernie Taupin and, of course, Elton John with whom he collaborated in the sixties. Like folk songwriter J.D.Souther, whose songs helped introduce a once fledging Linda Ronstadt, few people outside the music world knew who Ackles was in the sixties (Souther flourished and he’s had a good career.) That all changes when one sees this engaging show that is articulately put together by a dedicated, informed team of professionals. Unlike some overrated acts, this show was not thrown together.

The title comes from a fabled night on Sunset Strip on August 25, 1970 in Los Angeles when Mr. Ackles opened for Elton John at the fabled Troubador boite on Sunset Strip. Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendricks had died the year before and rock was moving on to it’s next cataclysmic phase. The club had always been a mecca for music types and new performers who often shared the bill with established stars. Enter David Ackles, who had the respect of the industry but hadn’t achieved wide commercial success. Already an established  songwriter in Great Britain, Ackles had a warm, folk-style, with earthy, unrivaled lyrics along with his worn jeans which were in sharp contrast to Elton John whose drag included red boots, big sunglasses and hot pants. Together, they formed a musical bond, rocked the house and formed a partnership that is the stuff of legends. It is a vital story that should be told. The output from their pairing is epic in the tapestry of the rock world creating the likes of “Your Song”, “Levon”, “Midnight Carousel”,“Someone Saved My Life Tonight”, “Burn Down The Mission”, “Blue Ribbons”,“Love’s Enough”, “Rocket Man” and the iconic “American Gothic” to name some.

David Akles’s songs were serious, often sad and always profound. Stacy Sullivan did justice to them in this complex show filled with anecdotes about the songs and his life. In lesser hands, such an abundance of wordiness might have been risky. Sullivan shined calling on astute acting chops along the way. This project is a demanding undertaking with little wiggle room. Yet, she managed to playfully include the audience and invite them on this journey with passion. She particularly stood out on a gently moving “I’ve Been Loved”, a haunting ballad with a music box arrangement that was riveting. Several songs used a similar bell-tone underpinning that was executed with great skill through the understated brilliance of the prodigiously talented Mr. Fukuoka. The arrangements by Nadler were creative and as good as it gets.

David Maiocco as Liberace

David Maiocco as Liberace. Photo: David Kent

David Maiocco as Liberace. Photo: David Kent

On a less serious note, David Maiocco has bedazzled audiences for years as a brilliant accompanist (and occasional sidekick) to award winning impersonators Steven Brinberg, James Beaman, Tommy Femia, Richard Skipper and Chuck Sweeney among others in their cabaret shows as they paid irreverent homage to Streisand, Garland, Bacall, Dietrich, Channing and Peggy Lee respectively. Well, he finally shined the spotlight on himself in a big way at the Metropolitan Room recently with Lee Squared: An Evening With Liberace & Peggy Lee. The riotous Chuck Sweeney is a wacky “guest” partner as a hideously off the wall Miss Lee in this frolic madness.

From the top, it must be noted that this is a growing work in progress that could use a theatrical director to shape what is an exciting entertainment vehicle that could/should land in larger venues. While not mainstream cabaret, they presented a 90-minute scaled down version of the theatrical show here. The potential is obvious and it is pieced together with love and respect. A mix of outrageously flamboyant and comic brilliance, this show has legs. But make no mistake, in spite of all the camp and silliness, there’s some pretty serious business going on that stage and it takes intelligence and a lot of talent to pull it off. With a few nips and tucks, there’s no reason this show can’t have a life outside Manhattan (as it has in New England). The audience couldn’t get enough. They’re probably still applauding.

David Maiocco & Chuck Sweeney as Liberace & Peggy Lee. Photo: David Kent

David Maiocco & Chuck Sweeney as Liberace & Peggy Lee. Photo: David Kent

Handsomely coiffed and outfitted in several dazzling costumes, Maiocco magically recreates his persona, the million dollar smile and fun-filled mannerisms that showed him laughing at himself with a wink as well as the shtick he perfected that sold out concert halls like Radio City Music Hall. There is a lot of ad-libbing going on but there’s no question Liberace knew exactly what he was doing and never gave less than 100% to his audience – exactly like Maiocco.

David Maiocco as Liberace. Photo: Conor Weiss

David Maiocco as Liberace. Photo: Conor Weiss

Speaking of high camp, an important part of the act involves award winning Chuck Sweeney as a tipsy Peggy Lee with oversized sunglasses and a Cleopatra wig. Sweeney pumps up the camp factor with some pretty funny moments. While some of the camping was over the top and rather long, the audience ate it up. Some of his shtick was used as “filler” that allowed Maiocco to change costumes. Sweeney even sang to tracks on one number and was a hit with the crowd as were zany impressions of divas like Phyliss Diller, Eartha Kitt, Joan Rivers and Judy Garland. He scored on Lee’s version of “I’m A W-O-M-A-N” and a fierce “Mack the Knife”. A serious moment on one of Miss Lee’s trademark bluesy ballads might be welcome. Same with Maiocco. Liberace made full use of the American songbook to balance an act filled with  so much silliness. More of that is called for.

David Maiocco is onto something and this has been in the planning stages for a long time. The talent with this duo is undeniable and lethal. “Lee Squared” returns to the Metropolitan Room on February 11. Reservations: 212 206 0440

 Jesse Luttrell

Jesse Luttrell in concert. Photo: Fadi Kheir

Jesse Luttrell in concert. Photo: Fadi Kheir

Sometimes, you have to travel outside the box to find salvation from the onslaught that is the mainstream cabaret machine. Jesse Luttrell did just that in his recent return to Feinstein’s/54 Below with his show aptly called Showstopper. The difference between a technically accomplished cabaret singer blithely strutting his stuff and a serious artist who takes the whole enterprise to another level, was exemplified by Luttrell. This multi-talented performer, known for glitzy, razzle dazzle performances, has people taking notice of a dynamo who isn’t afraid to break a few rules. His reputation has slowly spread through word of mouth and his latest sell-titled CD.   It’s part of the reason he has a fan base that is rabid and growing with sold out shows wherever he performs. He didn’t disappoint. If you’re from the more reserved, traditional school and prefer late cabaret greats like Mabel Mercer or Sylvia Syms with a more intimate talk-singing style or Bobby Short swinging Cole Porter, Mr. Luttrell is likely not for you. However, if you’re a fan of say gaudy, showstopping performers from the school of Sammy Davis, Jr., Anthony Newley, Peter Allen – or Liza Minnelli, Jesse Luttrell is your guy.

His latest show did not pander to the norm or to critics’. Refreshingly, this original powerhouse knows who he is and has the confidence to put it out there sans excuses. A natural entertainer, with a big voice, he belted to the rafters, offered some high kicks and, above all, he really entertained the SRO room for over an hour with the great arranger Fred Barton at the piano conducting the Fred Barton Broadway Band.

Opening with some childhood video clips on stage, he bounced into the room from the rear belting Cy Coleman’s “Hey There, Good Times” (written with Michael Stewart for I Love My Wife) and immediately recalled Vegas-style acts from the sixties... shout hooray and hallelujah, happy days are comin’ to ya! This set the tone for what was to follow as the song paints a jubilant spin on the carefree, good life. That is what Mr. Luttrell is all about.

Bearing a vague resemblance to a young Dean Martin, that is not all that reminds you of the Rat-Pack days once you see the whole package. His bubbly banter is, at times, self depricating, silly and slick. So was Bobby Darin’s. The point is that this is not your boy next door offering a cookie-cutter evening of standard cabaret fare. He’s pretty fearless up there and the set moves fast. Like its title, it’s a show of showstoppers. Michal Feinstein he’s not.

The kinetic set moved with strong backing from the band and Barton’s lush arrangements. He poked fun at coming from a small town in the middle of Pennsylvania to the lights of Manhattan where he wound up working in a basement piano bar and now lands in another basement (he notes that the club was once the infamous VIP lounge of Studio 54). Along the way, he starred in off-Broadway’s Bawdy where critics’ first referred to him as a modern day vaudevillian; a moniker often used by writers’ to describe him.

There were many musical highlights amid interaction with a wildly adoring audience. Particular stand outs included: an uplifting take on “Make Someone Happy” (Styne-Comden/Green), a more pensive “ When October Goes” (Mercer-Manilow) and a blatant ode to vaudeville with “Two A Day” (Baker). While he did a terrific job belting “I Wanna Be Around” (Vimmerstedt-Mercer), even more anger might be suggested to infer the rawness of spurned love (this is a song of revenge). A serious high spot came with a tour de force Peter Allen medley starting with a ferocious “Not The Boy Next Door” where he slid across the piano (without missing a beat) as well as rousing turns on “American Continental” and “Only In New York”. His high-energy style, at times, recalled Mr. Allen and he handled this material with ease. A lesser known Allen song closed the act with “Sure Thing Baby” (Legs  Diamond). This man is a talent to be reckoned with and might just be the closest thing to the greats of yesteryear in nightclubs today. Jesse Luttrell: handsome, multi-talented with a lot to offer. Hopefully, he’ll not wait so long to return.

Angela LaGreca

Angela LaGreca (no photo credit)

Angela LaGreca (no photo credit)

“Monday Night Madness,” that weekly asylum of cabaret/comic nonsense at the much-missed Eighty Eight’s has been revived by its creator Angela LaGreca over the last year or so. And, where else to mount it than at dusty Brandy’s Piano Bar. Of course. It turns out the idea has proven to be a stroke of nightlife genius on the upper east side. Playing to packed houses on assorted Mondays, the Bistro Award and 4-time MAC award winner invites the perfect guests from the worlds of comedy and music. The results are a breath of fresh air from the overwrought, politically-embarrassing, maniacal news coverage and social media insanity to gossip. This observer caught a wild show back in November (so much for timely reporting). LaGreca burst on the mini-stage like a thunderbolt and kicked things off with a  bang singing her own “Monday Night Madness” theme with the talented Lenny Babbish at the piano. Then she poked fun at todays ridiculous socio-political rat race, the world, Trump and her own life. A cancer survivor whose also been through other personal drama over the last three years, LaGreca, once the warm-up comic on “The View” and personal assistant and co-producer to Meredith Vieira’s popular television show, is in great form with her smooth brand of laid back delivery and sophisticated humor. Special guests that night were hilarious comic Steven Scott, super singer Marcus Simeone and the bubbly and sardonic Joy Behar who had the room roaring talking about Trump’s latest antics (little did we know then!) The lineup of serious talent on the bill over the months has been very impressive and refreshing to say the least. LaGreca recently started at SIRIUS Radio and some other projects. She’s a club favorite and never disappoints. Monday Night Madness is back at Brandy’s on Monday, March 6 at 7:00. Reservations: 212 744 4949.

The Red Room at 53 Above @ Broadway  Photo: Collette Black

The Red Room at 53 Above @ Broadway  Photo: Collette Black

There’s a terrific new “red” room in town that’s making waves in the theater district/Hell’s Kitchen hood. Al Martin’s 53 Above @ Broadway has seen a few incarnations over the years. Located inside the always busy Broadway Comedy Club, once the home of Chicago City Limits and the site of cabaret venues in the past, the “new” room is inviting and gaining in recognition. After a face lift and some technical updates, the room is on its way and attracting some terrific acts. For information: 212 502 1100.

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