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Bistro Bits: Almost Anything Goes

Bistrobits_darylglennandjolynnburks Trying to put together a definition of what cabaret is for a recent column in these pages, Back Stage editor-at-large and frequent boitegoer Sherry Eaker interviewed a number of this year's Bistro Award winners. Their responses were anything but a consensus, which in an all-encompassing way begins to suggest a definition — a loose and perhaps not entirely satisfying one. Cabaret can be anything that takes place in a cabaret room or anything taking place in other, larger rooms where cabaret performers participate. And that's the burden of the reviews to follow. 

'I've Got Your Number: Romance, the Rat Pack, and Carolyn Leigh' at the 92nd Street Y as part of Lyrics & Lyricists

Because I've thought since I first became aware of the late Carolyn Leigh that she's a lyricist deserving to be ranked with the very best (Irving Berlin, Larry Hart, Ira Gershwin, Dorothy Fields, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer), I was eager to attend the recent evening devoted to her in the 92nd Street Y's extremely long-running Lyrics & Lyricists series. After all, anyone is aces in my book who could write the line in "Young at Heart" (music by Johnny Richards) that goes, "If you should survive to a hundred and five/Think of all you'll derive out of being alive." And that's just a minuscule sampling of her work, much of it turned out for cabaret duenna Mabel Mercer.

Well, woe is me! At I've Got Your Number: Romance, the Rat Pack, and Carolyn Leigh, what I was handed by the four singers — in order of relative effectiveness, Karen Ziemba, Debby Boone, James Naughton, and Loston Harris — was big-time disappointment. What they delivered were sometimes bland, sometimes dire, and only sometimes fresh and thoughtful interpretations of the innumerable gems Leigh penned, mostly with the redoubtable Cy Coleman but also with Philip Springer, Moose Charlap, Henry Glover, Elmer Bernstein, and the above-mentioned Richards.

Missing from just about every item — excepting the duet Ziemba did with always impish bassist Jay Leonhart on "Doodlin' Song" (Coleman's music) — was the delight that should be a great part of singing the masterful Leigh words. Yes, this is an intangible quality, but it exists nonetheless and needs to be acknowledged. For the most part, the chosen quartet of performers merely ticked through a list of songs they'd been handed.

Thanks to Ziemba for doing "It Amazes Me" (Coleman again) with the called-for amazement, and for showing some merriment on "When in Rome" (also Coleman). Boone injected meaningful bemusement into "(How Little It Matters) How Little We Know" (Springer's music). And that's about it for the plus-column entries. Surprisingly, the usually offhand Naughton was occasionally off-key. Worse, over the Y's sound system he often sounded like several fog horns signaling each other on the Hudson. Harris, taking a Bemelmans Bar break, was out of his element. What he did by missing most of the right notes on "I Walk a Little Faster" would have landed him on Rikers Island were song butchering in the books as a crime.

It's to be assumed that all four were selected — or at least approved — by Deborah Grace Winer, the cabaret historian who's now the artistic director of the series. Winer certainly did her homework and imparted plenty of information on Leigh's life and tough times. It's not a surprise to learn that Leigh labored long over her lyrics. The stories about Leigh's quick temper and contretemps with Coleman have circulated for some time, but Winer's research yielded a cogent portrait of an artist at work.

Unfortunately, however, Winer disseminated the information as if she were hosting a sorority musicale. Affectedly perky, she kept reporting how much fun she, the singers, and the band, fronted by the always marvelous John Oddo, had when preparing the event. (Fun for her, no fun for us.) At one point she even felt compelled to refer to her "good friend Rosemary Clooney," evidently unaware that the cliché remark comes across as "I knew a famous person and you didn't." It's to be hoped that in future showings she does better by her new position.

The evening began with Ziemba, Boone, Naughton, and Harris — the last three being cabaret regulars — singing Leigh and Coleman's "The Best Is Yet to Come." It wasn't.  'Daryl Glenn and Jo Lynn Burks Play and Sing Robert Altman's Nashville' at the Metropolitan Room Any intimate-room patron asked if the score to Robert Altman's 1975 film Nashville is conducive to a cabaret presentation might demur, figuring country-rock and cabaret don't have much in common. You rarely if ever hear about cabaret rooms in Memphis or Tupelo.

Nonetheless, what country and cabaret have in common is sunny-voiced Daryl Glenn, who often presides at the Metropolitan Room reception podium but on a series of continuing nights is now stepping to the main-room podium out of his love of the Altman opus and its classic score. Country ditties Altman commissioned for his score from the likes of Ronee Blakley and Keith Carradine are now being sung on the Met stage. And because Glenn included Tanya Holt, Brad Wills, special guest star Jay Rogers, and musical director Jo Lynn Burks in the chanting, the room took on something of the Grand Ole Opry ambience. John Widgren's pedal steel guitar fit in just like it was the Ryman Auditorium of the old days, as did Andy Stein's hell-for-leather fiddling.

So, at the moment, country is cabaret — and vice versa — indicating that maybe the definition of cabaret is that it's anything offered by someone who wants to sing and can do it well, someone who explains by word and deed why he's devoted to what he's singing. Glenn couldn't have been more exuberant about the film and its tunes, even when singing Carradine's laid-back, Oscar-winning "I'm Easy." Songs like the opening "It Don't Worry Me" (also Carradine), which the onstage crew enhanced, have a sing-along allure that feels absolutely right in a cabaret environment. 

Sarah Rice and Friends at the Metropolitan Room

Bistrobits_sarahrice Sarah Rice, a soprano with a finished coloratura, has been demonstrating at the Metropolitan Room that cabaret can also be salon. On a string of weekend afternoons in March, she gathered a few friends — all of them Broadway vets — to show their stuff.

You wouldn't by any stretch of the imagination call what she did — along with Janice Hall, Claudine Cassan-Jellison, Michael Cone, and Rich Flanders — an act. It's just old pals singing songs, most of which have made the short hop from the theatre to cabaret confines. And these people can sing as well as, for the most part, act.

Of them all, the one who came off best when I was present was Cone. His outstanding choice was Jacques Brel's "Jackie" in, if I'm not mistaken, the Mort Shuman-Eric Blau translation, which he decided to translate even further, changing the "Jackie" to "Mikey." Couldn't have been cuter, nor could Cone's "Bilbao Song" (Weill-Brecht-who knows which English translator) have been nastier in the right way. Maybe Cone should be prepping a solo show.

--David Finkle

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