Cabarusicals: Two New Cabaret/Theatre Events

Two reviews by Doug DeVita

Because of the high cost and low returns that are endemic to traditional cabaret rooms, more and more performers are turning to staging their shows in a theatre setting. With only one modest ticket price to pay, and no overpriced drink minimums to worry about, so the theory goes, the show is more likely to bring in an audience. (Let's face it, even a modest cabaret room can cost upwards of 50 bucks a head when all is said and done.) And judging from the houses at several recent "cabarusicals," the theory is working. The trouble is that most of these performers need to rethink and revise their approach to their material to make it work in this very different setting. Two recent approaches to this problem, one unfortunately closed and one thankfully still running, were both sterling (and very different) examples of how to re-invent the form to everyone's advantage.

Vickie Phillips: By Request (revised production)
A musical tribute to Jacques Brel, Kurt Weill, Eric Blau, and Charles Aznavour
Written and directed by Bob Ost
78th Street Theatre Lab
236 W. 78th Street, 2nd floor (946-6379)
Wednesdays at 8, through June 28
Non-union production

Vickie Phillips, a NewYork Back Stage Bistro Award Winner for Outstanding Female Vocalist, was only partially successful when she did her first show in this format this past February; she is back with a substantially reworked production of her cabarusical evening "By Request: The songs of Jaques Brel, Kurt Weill, Charles Aznavour and Eric Blau," and the work that she and her gifted collaborators have done made all the difference. Artistic Director Bob Ost provided graceful patter that not only links the songs but connects them to Phillips in highly personal ways that were intriguing, and ultimately touching. Phillips now had a journey to take, and she traveled with irresistible charm and vivacity, generously taking her rapt audience with her wherever she chose to go.

The highlight of the evening remained her stunning rendition of Brel's haunting ballad "Marieke." There isn't another performer who can match her electrifying rendition of this piece: it is the perfect marriage of performer and song. But rather than an isolated moment of intense bliss, as it was the first time out, it became an emotionally shattering climax to an evening of steadily building intimacy between Phillips and her material and her audience.

Occasionally, Phillips was joined in song by her superb musical director, Gerry Dieffenbach. Dieffenbach's wonderfully rich voice and understated manner were the perfect compliment to Phillips's ebullient, irrepressible personality, and once again he demonstrated unusually sensitive support. Ost directed with a light touch, although the technical facilities at the 78th Street Theatre Lab were woefully inadequate to the task at hand-especially the lighting, which at times left Phillips in a murky half glow.

But technical reservations aside, Phillips herself gave off a special glow of her own, at times softly nurturing, at times positively volcanic. Now with a story to tell and her audience within her reach, she rocked the house and there was nothing left but to surrender willingly to her particular brand of vocal magic. She is one of a kind, demands to be seen, and once seen, will not soon be forgotten.

Box Score:

Writing: 1
Directing: 2
Musical Direction: 2
Performance: 2
Set: 1
Costume: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

Good Bye, My Lady Love: An Original Musicale of Yesteryear
by Sally Sherwood
Directed by Anita Brown
Montauk Theatre Productions
Shooting Star Theatre
Non-union production (closed)

Sally Sherwood, whose own cabarusical Good Bye, My Lady Love just completed a run at the Shooting Star Theatre, has the enchanting idea that some of us may just happen to discover our kindred souls in another time and another place in history. If Vickie Phillips is related to the rich European wine of Brel and Weill, then Sherwood gets her inspiration from the New York City of the Gilded Age, that special time at the turn of the last century when the world was still delicately afloat on champagne.

Between Anna Held's milk baths and Lillian Russell's diamond-studded corsets, the Broadway musical scene in the early 20th century was a combination of talent, excess, and genuine good fun. And so it was with Sherwood's delightful evening, which, like a well-oiled time machine, gently took her audience back into the bustling, extravagant era when the Waldorf-Astoria, Rector's, and Delmonico's transformed eating into an art form, when the brand-new subway charged mercilessly under city streets at the rocket speed of 40 mph, and the theatre district - "the Rialto" - stretched from 14th to 42nd streets.

With solid support from her superb musical director Woody Regan and Anita Brown's forthright, no-nonsense direction, Sherwood was intoxicating. Her limpid voice, able to transform from lusciously full soprano to brassily secure belt with startling ease, brought vivid new life to the songs made famous by four of the reigning divas of the day: Lillian Russell, Blanche Ring (who popularized "In The Good Old Summertime"), Eva Tanguay (the "I Don't Care" girl), and Anna Held (French star of the Ziegfield Follies). Looking like a hand-colored tintype come to life in Jennifer Gramb's gorgeous series of period gowns, she waltzed with gleaming gold hat-racks, flirted with the audience, traded gossip with elegantly refined cattiness, and generally made her nostalgic, deceptively simple material completely irresistible.

Aside from Gramb's rich costumes, the physical production was unprepossessing, with no set to speak of, simple period props, and gold-hued lighting by Greg Steinmetz and Christina Pesce. And yet such simplicity was precisely the point, and was what made the evening so deliciously right. By making schmaltz a desirable commodity, Sherwood and company made that whole  era come alive, if not in the way it really was, at least in the way we romanticize it to have been. And that alone was worth the trip.
Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Musical Direction: 2
Performance: 2
Set: 1
Costume: 2
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 1999 Steve Gold