Cabaret has its own built-in grapevine. Between texting, tweeting and any form of social media who spread the news of rising stars, nothing goes unnoticed. It spreads faster than the flu. And, the word is out about Seth Sikes. His shows, singing the songs of Judy Garland have taken the cabaret world by storm.
Tribute shows, which are acts built around the work of a single artist such as a songwriter, creative team – or famous singer, can be a challenge in cabaret. Just about all the prominent icons have already been covered by some of the best in the business over the decades. Consequently, the artist tackling such a show is up against not only well-remembered original versions of songs but also other, usually better known cabaret artists who have similarly mined the same vein. So, how does a kid from Paris, Texas, with minimal solo experience (he sang in the glee club) give a whirl at a debut show that pays musical homage to an epic legend like Judy Garland? And, he does this at Gotham’s flashiest club.
Fulfilling a dormant desire to give it a try and armed with a well-placed, strong voice, Seth Sikes took the plunge and got booked into 54 Below for one show only singing Garland’s showstoppers laced with some personal anecdotes thrown in. To cut to the chase, the show quickly sold out and was a huge success. He’s returned several times to the landmark club since and continues to sell out. The word was out that this charismatic guy is the big noise around town and his future looks bright. Tickets have been selling very fast for his next show there on September 18. And, he’s got bookings through next March. So, how did it all begin? Where is it all going?
Since his arrival in New York, Sikes became a part of the musical theater scene and is better known for his backstage work as an Assistant Director on shows including The Nance, Tribes and Pageant. So, when did it all start? “I was transformed the first time I saw Summer Stock starring Judy and Gene Kelly. I couldn’t stop watching that movie. She was so powerful with all this boundless energy and all that talent. And, she was also very moving. I saw her dynamic as well as her vulnerable side that touched me so much. I was five or six and I was hooked. I soon found the Carnegie Hall album with her singing those songs like no one else. I couldn’t stop singing them over and over. While friends were out playing baseball and football, I was playing Judy Garland over and over.” And so it began.
Fast forward to 2015 in New York. A journey begins. However, it’s important to note that his is not an impersonation. He doesn’t try to copy the emotion-fueled Garland mannerisms or throbbing vocal style. Yet, that doesn’t mean he lacks any of the gusto needed to sell those songs with a lived-in intelligence and buoyant artistry unmatched by any singer today. He sings Garland’s songs with his full-voiced, rangy tenor and rattles the rafters with a dynamite belt supported by an 8-piece band led by his genius musical director Gary Adler.
What does he have in common with Garland as a performer? He brings the same electric energy to everything he sings which means he is someone to take seriously in an age of cookie cutter shows. In that regard, there have been many Garland shows by less talented vocalists who offer little in terms of originality or passion. Some of them are as interesting as watching aluminum siding. Seth Sikes has got something going for him that most of the others have missed. Firstly, his is not an impersonation. He is not in drag. He does not attempt to recreate Garland’s voice or her mannerisms. He simply opens his mouth and sings from the heart. He does this effortlessly and with enough joy to fill the room with magic.
This is his strongest commonality with Garland. She had that same effect. Sikes also belts with the same bravado and conviction that Garland was famous for. He nails every song like it was written for him. In this new show, “Mostly Judy Garland,” on Sept. 18, he’ll include even more popular Garland staples from the Great American Songbook – and a few surprises. Between rehearsals, we asked him a few questions about his recent success in cabaret and where he wants to take it.
TS: When did your affinity for Judy Garland start?
Seth: Well, to be honest and with all due respect, unlike most, it didn’t start with The Wizard of Oz. Of course, it’s a great movie. But, to be honest, I’m not exactly one of the world’s experts on her MGM musicals. I love her concert performances. In my case, it happened when I first saw Summer Stock. I was mesmerized by what she could do up on that screen. It’s not easy to explain but I was haunted by her performance – at six years old. I ended up watching it religiously for so many years – over and over. Everything she sang affected me. The way she moved. Just everything she did. It changed my life (even though I didn’t know it at the time.)
TS: You’ve said that you don’t consider yourself an actor or a typical singer. Why?
Seth: Well, I don’t feel like I’m playing a part. I just love to sing those songs so much. It’s all about interpreting the songs the way they were meant to be sung and entertaining my audience. I’m not using cabaret as an audition or a platform to further my Broadway career for instance. I do consider myself a traditional singer. Period. Every one of them speaks to me in a way I can’t quite explain. And, audiences respond to them. That means the most.
TS: When you were home in Paris (Texas,) was Garland an emotional or psychological escape of some sort for you from your troubles?
Seth: I guess it was both. Mostly, it was my love for her – as well as a release. After all, Paris, Texas, is a rather low-key southern Baptist kind of town with about 30,000 people who lead a more traditional family lifestyle than I wanted. That can be lonely for a kid who has other dreams. That’s why I came to New York. I loved anything to do with theater. And, it proved to be the right move for me. I was very lucky to find work on and off Broadway. But, a driving force deep within was my love for Judy Garland and, of course, Liza Minnelli.
TS: Do you feel you missed something big by not seeing Garland perform in person?
Seth: Oh, yes. I guess I was born in the wrong era. However, when I finally got to see Liza perform for the first time, I got it. The crowd went absolutely wild and she was a sensation – and still is. That experience is the closest I have come to knowing what it was like to attend a Garland concert. It’s also pretty hard to watch Liza on stage and not be reminded of Judy.
TS: Where do you want these shows to take you?
Seth: Well, it all started as a simple one night only thing. Now, I’d like to perform all over. I’d like to bring the show to Provincetown and San Francisco, etc. I’ve been bitten by the bug. It still boggles my mind how many people have embraced what I do. Performing in cabaret has been so rewarding and such a life-altering experience. I’m still overwhelmed by all the support I’ve gotten. Yet, I can’t help secretly giving credit to Judy and the raw emotion and power she brought to her songs that influenced me the most. She touched me so much every time I heard her. Just listen to her version of “Stormy Weather” on the Carnegie Hall album. No one can touch that. And they never will.
Seth Sikes is one of today’s bright lights in cabaret. He is well worth catching. And, it sounds like he’s going to be around for a long time. New York Arts Review said, “Seth Sikes may well be one of the saviors of the Great American Songbook.” He returns to 54 Below on Friday, September 18th at 9:30 PM to perform a revamped version of his critically-acclaimed show “Seth Sikes Sings Mostly Judy Garland,” an evening of Garland’s most popular songs with several new arrangements. Sikes returns to 54 Below after four previous sold-out appearances.
Seth Sikes Sings Mostly Judy Garland (September 18 & November 24, 2015; January 24 & March 18, 2016)
54 Below, 254 W. 54the Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-476-3553 or visit http://www.54below.com