At a time when many cabaret shows are structured around assorted thematic concepts, it takes courage to buck the trend and use one’s inner voice as a touchstone. But Meg Flather, a New Yorker who has served as a QVC ambassador and upscale cosmetics advisor, has the guts to not only buck that trend but reprise the colors of her life twenty-two years ago. And, she does it warts and all. All this is part of Stephen Hanks’ imaginative series “New York Cabaret’s Greatest Hits,” a monthly program that has cabaret performers reprising their acts of yesteryear. Fr. Jeffrey Hamblin is associate producer of the series that runs at the Metropolitan Room through 2016. In her recent outing, Flather brought back Portraits and carried it off with aplomb and a knife-edged professionalism that is missing in many cabaret acts today.
The act itself is a potpourri of story songs that she was drawn to at an early age starting in 1985 when making her cabaret debut with pianist Christian Daizey at the old Duplex on Grove Street. After a few incarnations, the show was booked into The Ballroom in 1993, the legendary, now defunct, club in Chelsea that presented star attractions such as Eartha Kitt and Peggy Lee. The act was a big success and received raves. Now, twenty-two years later, she brought it back for one show with the masterful Paul Greenwood as musical director and John Mettam on percussion/guitar. Shaped by Lennie Watts as director, her reminiscences and silly quips explaining her more mature take now on her song choices then made for an engaging and totally fun hour (“… I had no business singing these songs in my twenties!”) With a few nips and tucks, Flather steered it all into the twenty-first century.
As a performer, Meg Flather is dynamic; a terrific mix of intelligence and high energy wackiness who can also break your heart with a gut-wrenching ballad. With a flare for comic timing, she sings in a strong, mid-range alto with a great belt voice whose pitch never falters. Hers is a happy voice with a husky edge that can be sexy and slap-happy at the same time. Every number bears her unique stamp. Many of the songs are prefaced with anecdotes and offbeat references from the past.
Kicking off with Mary Chapin Carpenter’s rousing “I Feel Lucky” made for the perfect start setting the stage for what was to come. “Once In A Very Blue Moon” is a rarely heard story song by Patrick Alger and Gene Levine (recorded respectively by Crystal Gayle and Nanci Griffith) about an old love that still stings (… there is a blue moon shining when I am reminded of all we’ve been through… just once in a very blue moon.) She twists your heart on this without being over theatrical or maudlin. After noting that since she first put together this mix, she’s been engaged, married, separated, divorced – and then again, she declares “… however, I’m wiser now.”
She slid into the John Kromer-Gary Gardner “Soliloquy At 5 AM in The Holiday Inn On I-70.” About long nights waiting for dawn, this story song, in spite of its sardonic underpinning, is a very funny romp. Flather did a riveting job on Harry Chapin’s yearning ode to “Mr. Tanner,” about an aging, working man who just loved to sing and finally took a chance that fell flat. She sang this trenchant homily with straightforward honesty. It was a high spot. She told delightful stories about college and surviving the battles of the 1960s and sang the beautiful “Life Story” a tenderly woven canticle about reflections and regret by Richard Maltby and David Shire: “I chose my way and I’m not complaining.” This was a show-stopper that evoked a huge response from her idolaters in the SRO room.
A poignant story about her aging parents set up “Where’ve You Been?” (Henry-Vezner) that gave Flather her best moment, “where’ve you been? I’ve looked for you forever and a day.” Her wacky story about getting her first job in the cosmetics department of a snobby store with French-named perfumes was sidesplitting. This led into the evening’s most entertaining ditty, “The French Song” (Tucker.) Jacques Brel’s whirling “Days of The Waltz,” once a staple for singer and cabaret legend Felicia Sanders, made for the perfect cap to this show about looking back and moving ahead as it crescendos into a triple time, frenetic finish, “on the first time we went waltzing, we were young and never alone.” Flather asks, “what have I learned in 22 years? … To stay in the moment, maybe dance a little– and maybe a waltz.”
Several other songwriters were part of this mélange of memories including Joni Mitchell and Janis Ian. Her encore, “Leave It like It Is” (Wilcox) said it all and brought back the cool music of the 80’s which, quite simply, summed it all up. The resounding ovation spoke for itself. Through her at-ease humor and by understating flowery or overtly sentimental lyrics, Flather revisited this piece of sentimental kitsch and turned it into something genuinely real and touching.
The next performance of “New York Cabaret’s Greatest Hits” will be Karen Oberlin in Frank Loesser – Heart and Soul on January 13, 2016 at the Metropolitan Room.
Meg Flather: Portraits (extends February 1, March 7, and April 4, 2016 at 7 PM)
Dobn’t Tel Mama, 343 W. 46th Street, in Manhattan
For reservations or information, call 212- 757-0788 or visit http://www.donttellmama.nyc.com
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission