Storm Large

Singer, songwriter, actress, author, and agent provocateur Storm Large made her fifth St. Louis appearance in the last four years this past Wednesday (January 17, 2018). Having seen and very much enjoyed two of her previous shows at the Gaslight Theatre, I knew what to expect: an exuberant mix of Great American Songbook standards, rock, and pop, along with some French chansons, all delivered with the power of rock and roll and the emotional honesty that is the hallmark of cabaret.

Neither I nor the many fans who packed the Sheldon Concert Hall were disappointed. From the now-familiar borderline psychotic cover of Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin" that opened the show to the pair of original songs that closed it, this was classic Large. It was big, bold, bawdy, and emotionally real, and a good time was had by all.

Yes, her raucously funny and emotionally frank patter rambled a bit more than usual, resulting in a show which, at just under two hours, was maybe a bit too long. And her voice, still recovering from the flu that's running rampant through the nation, was more raw and less dark and rich than it has been in the past, sometimes rendering lyrics and even melodies incomprehensible. But even when Ms. Large goes all the way over the edge instead of stopping just short, she's still a magnetic presence.

As always, Ms. Large and her merry band had entertainingly original takes on familiar tunes. Her take on Porter's "It's All Right With Me" combined seduction and mania in a way that suggested Marilyn Monroe on speed. Her version of Jacque Brel's "Ne Me Quitte Pas" suggested that there might be a good reason why the object of the song's plea was leaving. And she brought a searing intensity to Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U."

Her interpretation of Elton John and Bernie Taupin's "Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road," on the other hand, was pretty straightforward. The patter that introduced it was another story, hilariously examining the way song lyrics could be misheard back in the days when you couldn't just Google them on your smartphone.

The Storm Large originals were welcome, as always. Her next to closing song, "Angels in Gas Stations," was a beautiful little slice-of-romantic-life poem ("God is every damn where tonight," runs the refrain). And the final number, "Stand Up For Me," took a nicely poetic idea--what would Love ask of us, if it could speak?--and made it the basis for a deeply felt anthem. "Be the light. Be the answer," goes the lyric. "Be the music in the dark. Stand up for me, and I'll stand beside you." In these days of darkness, it's an inspiring message.

Accompanying Ms. Large were pianist and music director James Beaton, guitarist Matt Brown, bass guitarist Scott Weddle, and drummer Greg Eklund. Collectively known as "Le Bonheur", they've been playing with Ms. Large for years, developing an almost telepathic rapport with her that allows them to easily adapt to her freewheeling performance style. These guys really know how to rock, but they can also sing in gorgeous four-part harmony when the song calls for it. I'm impressed.

Statuesque, slinky, and vocally versatile, Storm Large is a lean, mean entertainment machine, and it's always good to see her on stage. "We have quite a few fans in St. Louis," she observed in a recent interview for St. Louis Public Radio, "so it's kind of like a coming home usually for us." For those fans, I expect the feeling is mutual.

The appearance of Storm Large and Le Bonheur was produced by Jim Dolan's Presenters Dolan organization. Their next event is a return engagement on February 10th of Katie McGrath's superb Significant Others show, first seen here at the Gaslight Theatre last November.

Wednesday night (December 27th) it was as cold as Paul Ryan's heart outside, but over at Jazz St. Louis it was positively smokin' as Lea DeLaria brought her David Bowie show (based on her 2015 CD House of David) to the stage. With a killer five-piece band and a special guest appearance by Manhattan Transfer founder Janis Siegel, this was a show guaranteed to nuke any holiday blues.

And without a single Christmas song!

Although she's probably best known for her role as Carrie "Big Boo" Black on the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, Ms. DeLaria has had an impressive career in stand-up comedy, theatre, and music for many years now. With five jazz albums to her credit, she's a powerful vocalist with a great ear and an unfailingly accurate feel for what makes both musical and theatrical sense.

Her show for Jazz St. Louis got off to a rousing start with a high-energy version of David Bowie's "Boys Keep Swinging" (from Bowie's 1979 Lodger album) and just went from strength to strength after that. I've never been a huge Bowie fan myself, but I came away from this show impressed with how much room his relatively simple songs leave for improvisation.

A case in point was DeLaria and company's version of the 1969 hit "Space Oddity." About half way through the original there's a short instrumental break that takes up maybe eight bars before the vocal picks up again. Wednesday night, that little break was turned into an elaborate, free-wheeling solo by keyboardist Helen Sung that helped turn Bowie's five-minute song into something of an epic.

Something very similar happened in their take on Bowie's cinematically dystopian "Life on Mars?," in which the hallucinatory lyrics of civilization in decline were paired with high-flying vocals and flashy instrumental solos. That would have been worth the price of admission all by itself.

But wait, as they say on TV, there's more! Jazz veteran Janis Siegel came onstage about half way through for a lyrical "Cherry Tree" by Grammy-winning composer, arranger, and pianist Alan Broadbent, followed by a kick-ass duet version of Harold Arlen's "Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead" aimed at That Guy in the Oval Office. Siegel and DeLaria expertly traded licks with each other and with guitarist and music director Sheryl Bailey in a way that overflowed with good humor and showed off their rapport with both each other and the band.

There were other great moments in the evening as well, including solid solo work from Roxy Coss on sax and Sylvia Cuenca on drums. And I really loved that insistent bass solo by Endea Owens that opened "Let's Dance."

The bottom line is that this is an entertaining and inventive night with a lot of terrific singing and playing. Ms. DeLaria herself is engaging and funny as hell as long as you're not put off by the f-bomb being dropped liberally. But then, if you are, you probably wouldn't be considering this show anyway.

Lea DeLaria and her band do two more sets of their David Bowie tribute tonight (Thursday, December 28th) at 7:30 and 9:30 at Jazz St. Louis's Ferring Bistro on Washington in Grand Center. The show is a co-presentation with The Cabaret Project STL (where, to be fair, I'm a board member) and it's well worth a trip out in the cold. Consider getting there early and sampling the bistro's menu; it looked pretty tasty.

The doctor is in, and he's got the cure for your holiday blues. All of them. 

Happy Haller Days!, the latest show from singer/actor/pediatrician Ken Haller, is a romp through a full calendar year of three-day weekends, starting with Christmas and working around the calendar. Peppered with insights from Mr. Haller's life in medicine and theatre, the evening is fun and funny, but also touching and profound. 

The song choices are varied and sometimes even inspired. Memories of the hard life of Mr. Haller's Swedish grandmother, for example, introduce an Independence Day segment that features a low-key version of Neil Diamond's "America." For Labor Day, reflections on his days as a resident physician on Manhattan's posh Upper West Side lead to Harburg and Lane's rarely heard "When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich" from Finian's Rainbow

Perhaps the most emotional moment, though, comes with the return to Christmas, as Mr. Haller's thoughts on his decade as a pediatrician in poverty-stricken inner city East St. Louis, make way for an inspiring arrangement of "Light," from Next to Normal. Based on an arrangement for the Gateway Men's Chorus by the late Neal Richardson, it blends the voices of Mr. Haller and his pianist and music director Marty Fox in tight and powerful harmony. The song's hope that the light will make "wasted world we thought we knew...look brand new" feels particularly relevant in the context of today's bleak political landscape.

Balancing out the drama are some true comic gems, like "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas," which the ten-year-old Gayla Peevey took to number 24 on the Billboard charts in 1963. Mr. Haller does an impressive job of channeling his own inner child in his charming performance. Perhaps the biggest laughs of the evening, though, came from the Valentine's Day entry, Marilyn Miller and Cheryl Hardwick's "Making Love Alone," a hymn of praise in beguine tempo to (ahem) taking matters into one's own hands. Bernadette Peters brought the house down with it on The Tonight Show in 1989. The Haller and Fox team got even more mileage out of it by taking it just a bit slower, giving the audience room to laugh at the song's many jokes.

As I have written previously, Mr. Haller never fails to deliver a combination of theatrical smarts and vocal authority that has made him one of our town's principal cabaret exports. He and Mr. Fox also have a great rapport on stage, something that was obvious in their last effort, The Medicine Show. Expert direction by Gaslight Cabaret Festival producer Jim Dolan kept everything moving at a good pace and helped insure the sense of a dramatic arc that, in my view, is a major characteristic of a well-designed cabaret performance. The capacity crowd at the Gaslight Theater clearly loved what they saw.

That said, I have to note that while it may be true that, as the old wheeze goes, an elephant never forgets, there's no escaping the fact that people do. On opening night, Mr. Haller occasionally got lost in a couple of lyric-heavy numbers, which suggests to me that there might be too many of those in the show. That's a very minor complaint, though, which is why it's at the very end of this review.

Ken Haller and Marty Fox will reprise Happy Haller Days! at 8 p.m. on Thursday, November 9, at the Gaslight Theater in the Central West End, as part of the Gaslight Cabaret Festival. It's a tremendously entertaining evening from one of our best and most prolific cabaret stars; go and enjoy.

 

If you wanted to write a "How to Do Cabaret" textbook, you could easily start with Significant Others, the latest show by former St. Louisan Katie McGrath, which had its local premiere at The Gaslight Cabaret Festival on Friday, November 10. 

With a great song list ranging from Bon Jovi to Cole Porter, perfectly tailored arrangements by Rick Jensen, ideally paced direction by Lina Koutrakos, and Ms. McGrath's powerfully genuine stage presence, this was a show that hit all the right notes, literal and figurative.  

From the moment Ms. McGrath stepped on stage in a sleek basic black outfit that nicely set off her striking blonde hair and silver earrings, she grabbed the audience's attention with the haunting lyrics Steve Porcaro wrote for the Michael Jackson hit "Human Nature": "Looking out / Across the nighttime / The city winks a sleepless eye." By the time she got to "If this town / Is just an apple / Then let me take a bite" there was little doubt that she was singing not just about her new home town of New York City, but about her entire approach to life as well -- a view confirmed by the next song, a giddy run through Frank Loesser's "If I Were a Bell" from Guys and Dolls. As we say over at the Church of the SubGenius, she's not just going to eat that apple, she's gong to eat the hell out of it.

I should pause here to point out that I have known Ms. McGrath for over a decade, going back to when we both attended an early edition of the St. Louis Cabaret Conference. Even then, before experience and training had allowed her to polish her craft, it was obvious that her singing had the immediacy and emotional truth that is at the heart of cabaret performance. No wonder that Gerry Geddes, in a review of the NYC debut of this show, wrote that Ms. McGrath has now "pursued, captured, and pretty much perfected cabaret performance."

The "significant others" of the title, as Ms. McGrath points out, goes back to the original psychological definition of the term as anyone who had a strong influence on one's self-concept. For her that includes not only her current partner Chet (the subject of a charming original song by Ms. McGrath and Alex Rybeck near the end of the show) but also her parents, her many siblings, her favorite babysitter, and even Sen. Kamala Harris, whose pointed questioning of Jeff Sessions she praised with Frank Loesser's "I Believe in You" (from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying).

Memories of how her babysitter introduced her and her siblings to the joys of Motown in the 1960s led to an ingenious bit in which Ms. McGrath and Mr. Jensen sang only the backup parts of "Heat Wave" and "Come See About Me" (because only her babysitter could be Diana Ross or Martha Reeves) while she channeled her inner child trying (and failing) to execute the dance moves. That child stayed with us in the next song, Dar Williams's poignant "The Babysitter's Here," which views a failing relationship through the eyes of someone young enough to understand pain, but not yet old enough to understand its source.

Ms. McGrath touched on her family's struggle with alcoholism early on, but did so in a way that not only completely avoided self-pity, but also turned the pain into art with a wistful version of Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies." That led to a story about encountering Irving Berlin himself during a youthful trip to New York City, which in turn served as the basis for Rupert Holmes's "People That You Never Get to Love." It was an example of the solid dramatic structure of Significant Others, in which the experienced hand of Ms. Koutrakos was evident.

The show closed with a little something they didn't get in the Big Apple: James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James" sung in harmony with St. Louis singers Jeff Wright and Dionna Raedeke as a tribute to the late Neal Richardson, whose work as an arranger, music director, and educator enriched the lives of so many here in St. Louis before his own life was tragically cut short by illness earlier this year. It was a moment of true beauty.

Significant Others was, in short, a perfect blend of laughter and tears delivered by a singer who is now a master of her art, riding on Mr. Jensen's impeccably tailored arrangements.  Our loss has been New York City's gain, and it was nice to see Ms. McGrath once again holding forth on her home turf. Let us hope she returns soon.

Significant Others was produced by The Presenters Dolan as part of the fall edition of the Gaslight Cabaret Festival, which concluded on November 11. 

Broadway star Alice Ripley strikes me as fiercely courageous performer. Back in 2010 at the Fox in a tour of Next to Normal, her Diana (a role she created on Broadway), was a dynamic and deeply troubled force of nature despite Ms. Ripley's audible vocal fatigue. You can argue about whether performing under vocal stress was a good idea or not, but there's no question that it took real guts.

I saw that same "go for broke" bravery in the opening number of her latest cabaret show, which had its world premiere at the Gaslight Cabaret Festival this weekend (Friday and Saturday, October 21 and 22). It was Leon Russell's soulful "A Song for You," expanded and extended to include volcanic outbursts of passion and even some idiosyncratic scatting. This was a kind of post-Wagnerian elaboration that left me wondering where the heck she was going with it and then being impressed with the destination. She broke the rules, took chances, and ultimately succeeded -- which was essentially what she did for the entire evening.

At around ninety minutes, that evening was maybe a bit longer than it should have been, and if I were directing this show I'd suggest possibly making cuts in the first half, which consisted of dramatically charged renditions of pop songs from the sixties and beyond. Sometimes, as in a fiercely vulnerable version of Aaron Neville's 1966 "Tell It Like It Is," the results were gripping. But ultimately there were too many deeply felt ballads in a row for me and I began to tune out.

I tuned back in, though, for Ms. Ripley's chatty and engaging patter, which related the songs to her life without descending into the kind of embarrassingly personal details that sometimes mars that approach. At no point did I want to shout, "Too much information!" Good for her.

And I really tuned in for the second half, which consisted of pianist and music director Brad Simmons's beautifully arranged medleys from some of the many hit Broadway shows in Ms. Ripley's impressive resume. I was particularly taken with the three numbers from Sunset Boulevard, the show in which she played the role of Betty when it opened on Broadway in 1994. She said she'd love to play Norma Desmond now, and if the powerful way she delivered "With One Look" and "As If We Never Said Goodbye" is any indication, she is definitely ready for her close-up.

The collection of tunes from the 1992 stage version of Tommy bubbled with raucous joy, and Ms. Ripley's heartfelt performance of "I Miss the Mountains" -- Diana's first big number in Next to Normal -- was a reminder of why she got that 2009 Tony award.

Mr. Simmons, it should be noted, contributed not only impeccably well-tailored arrangements but great vocals as well. When he and Ms. Ripley sang close harmony -- as they did several times -- it was such a thing of beauty that I was willing to ignore the fact that they were facing each other and not actively involving the audience. That should have been a turn-off, but wasn't. Their performance chemistry was irresistible.

So, yeah, this new show (the working title of which would appear to be "The Ripley Prescription") needs some fine tuning, but it's an impressive, theatrically potent piece already. For Ms. Ripley's fans, who were present in force the night I saw the show, The Ripley Prescription was just what the doctor ordered. For me, it was a demonstration of her vocal versatility and substantial acting chops. I expect that the show will be another feather in her already highly decorated cap before long.

The Gaslight Cabaret Festival continues through November 11 at the Gaslight Theatre in the Central West End.

 

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