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.
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.
Assembling a cabaret show is a risky undertaking. More than one nationally renowned artist has discovered that the hard way, producing shows that had me glancing at my watch and wondering when I could order another drink.
At no time during Out of My Head, the latest undertaking from St. Louis' own Meghan Kirk, did I even think of glancing at my Fitbit. In fact, I have no idea how long the show actually was; I was too busy enjoying it. It was all I could do to remember to jot down a note now and then. If there is such a thing as a perfect, Platonic Ideal of a cabaret evening, it would surely look a lot like this.
When I first reviewed Ms. Kirk's work at the Gaslight Cabaret Festival back in 2015, I called her a tremendously talented and charismatic performer. It's an assessment I can only repeat now. She remains a classic singing actress with solid vocal technique and the acting chops necessary to inhabit a lyric.
In fact, a sure sense of the theatrical informed every aspect of this show. Ms. Kirk and pianist/music director Ron McGowan put together a smart, well-paced evening with an impeccably balanced collection of Great American Songbook standards, numbers from both classic and contemporary musical theatre, and pop tunes from Billy Joel and The Carpenters. It was also great to hear the work of contemporary songwriting teams like Goldrich and Heisler and Kooman and Diamond, who craft brilliantly narrative songs that are like little one-act plays.
Ms. Kirk's day career is flight attendant on private jets, and so the show began with the a slow, seductive take on the familiar "Fly Me to the Moon" (complete with the rarely heard verse), followed by "The Jet Set," a clever "list song" from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's stage treatment of the film Catch Me If You Can. The theme of flight returned at the end as the show wrapped up with an upbeat encore of "Come Fly With Me," immediately following a touching performance of the title song.
Tales of travel informed many of the song choices. A reflection on Bangkok's reputation as a "sex tourism" destination, for example, led to haunting version of Cole Porter's "Love for Sale" (including a dark verse I had never heard before). A vignette about a romantic misadventure in Ireland introduced Paddy Reilly's "The Fields of Athenry" (inspired by that awful event known to the Irish as "The Hunger") which then served as a segue into "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" from Evita, with backup vocals from local musical theatre luminary Ben Nordstrom.
Mr. Nordstrom got a brief solo set of his own at that point, consisting of a passionate performance of the title number from David Bryan's Memphis, followed by a perfectly hilarious rendition of Kooman and Diamond's absurdist stalker song "To Excess." The set was just long enough to offer a nice contrast and just short enough to keep the focus of the evening on Ms. Kirk. It was, once again, a perfect choice.
Like many cabaret artists, Ms. Kirk used memories of her life, family, and unfortunate romantic choices to unify and organize the show. That "this is my life" approach can be risky--your audience might not find your personal story as interesting as you do, after all. But Ms. Kirk kept the anecdotes short, entertaining, and focused on the task of providing context for the songs, so her patter never degenerated into the kind of self-referential navel gazing that sometimes accompanies the approach.
So, yeah, perfect once again.
Ms. Kirk's band was perfection as well, with arrangements by Mr. McGowan that were ideally suited to her voice and great work from Ben Wheeler on bass and Aaron Brown on guitar. The balance between vocalists and instrumentalists was excellent, a tribute both to the performers and to the designers of The Stage. Located on the first floor here at KDHX, it has become one of our town's better music spaces.
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.
Laughter, the old saying goes, is the best medicine. If so, The Medicine Show, the newest diadem in the crown of St. Louis cabaret star Ken Haller, was just what the doctor ordered. And Mr. Haller is a doctor, so he should know.
Sure, there were serious moments in this cabaret evening inspired by Dr. Haller's long and distinguished career in pediatric medicine. That included a sensitive version of Jason Robert Brown's "Someone to Fall Back On" and a truly moving rendition of "How Glory Goes" from Adam Guettel's Floyd Collins. But ultimately The Medicine Show was about good cheer.
And that's a good thing, given that contemporary American politics often leaves the more thoughtful citizen feeling (to continue the medical theme) like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis (a joke I stole from Tom Lehrer).
The comic tone was set at the very beginning as Mr. Haller (I'm dropping the "Doctor" from here on out, if we're all OK with that) entered from the house wearing an obviously fake black wig and singing "Ken Haller's Miracle Elixir" (formerly "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir" from Sweeney Todd) with music director/pianist Marty Fox playing Todd to his Toby.
It was fast and funny, and set an engaging tone for the rest of the evening. It also showed the strong rapport between Mr. Haller and Mr. Fox, who often added a second voice to the evening to complement his sterling pianism.
The show reached its emotional heart with a lovely medley of "Holding to the Ground" from Falsettos), "Home" from The Wiz, and that Muppet classic "The Rainbow Connection" that was all about home, hope, and holding fast to what counts in life. Through it all, Mr. Haller delivered the goods with that combination of theatrical smarts and vocal authority that has made him one of our town's principal cabaret exports.
The Medicine Show was performed on April 8 at The Stage at KDHX where it will make a return engagement on Saturday, June 24. The Stage is the state of the art performance space with seating for around 100, great sight lines, and an adjoining café, it's a welcome addition to the roster of cabaret rooms in town.