It was another marvelous evening at the Monocle down in the Grove district. In their cozy, elegant Emerald Room cabaret a quite astonishing group called One Too Many filled the night with a cappella singing. The Monocle is simply the best venue there is for cabaret in all of St. Louis--intimate, tasteful, softly abuzz, and decorated with a most skillful and imaginative hand.

One Two Many is a six-man a cappella group. They combine superb musicianship with a very hip style and an engagingly wacky comic sense. The group consists of: Daniel Copeland, baritone/tenor 2; Ryan Eversole, tenor 2/arranger; William Frazier, beatboxer/bass; Brian Poppe, bass; Amit Sood, baritone; Chris Thomas, tenor 1/arranger.

They're an attractive bunch of young men. All are clean-shaven except for the basses: Poppe is bounteously bearded like a Russian Patriarch, and Frazier is bearded like--well, like maybe one of the Smith Brothers?

Now I've been an a cappella fan for a long time--ever since the Hi-Lo's captured my teen-age musical heart; and these guys in One Too Many are right up there with the very, very top modern groups like Rockapella, the Nylons, Manhattan Transfer and Straight No Chaser. They show off splendid voices, microscopically precise synchrony, complex rhythms and fascinating six-part harmonies.

At first my purist sensibilities were offended because (I thought) they were using an electric drum-box. Then I realized that what I thought was electric was really bass William Frazier, who was vocally but very convincingly mimicking a complete drum-set: pedal base, snare, rim-shots, steel brushes--even a touch of shimmering hi-hat! And they all seemed to be going at once. Amazing!

Most of the songs last night were up-beat numbers, many with hilariously modified lyrics. But there were also beautiful old standards like Cole Porter's "You Do Something to Me." There was an occasional drift into country ("She's A'tearin' My Heart"). There was a compellingly warm and beautiful gospel number, "You Raise Me Up." They sang "The Entertainer," "Johnny Be Good, "Down Town."

All the voices were splendid--the whole spectrum: from Chris's stratospheric high notes down to the cavernous depth of William's low ones. The group's carefully controlled dynamics are most impressive.

They sang cleverly blended medleys: Their "Queen" medley included, of course, "Dancing Queen," and it eventually ended with a grand and respectful "God Save The Queen." A "St. Louis" medley included, of course, "Meet Me In St. Louis."

Halfway through the evening a quarrel broke out between their two arrangers, Eversole and Thomas. Who was the best arranger? And (as a subordinate battle) which notation software was better: Finale or Sibelius?

After a break the quarrel formalized into a presidential debate: Chris vs. Ryan. The stage was hung with red-white-and-blue bunting and Brian served as moderator. He led the two "candidates" into a glorious send-up of politicians and their amazing skill in turning a serious question into a lead-in to a their favorite topic--in this case the next song on their program. One promised to "build a Wall"--a wall of sound--which the group impressively did. This quintessentially American segment ended with the whole house happily rising as One Too Many sang a quite stirring version of our National Anthem.

One Too Many. It's a remarkable group, singing at the very highest level of polished professional a cappella. And they are non-stop FUN! They brought their "Presidential Circus" to the Emerald Room on June 4.

 

A congenial singer, actor, and writer, Ben Nordstrom gives us a peak into the small joys and simple rebellions of life as a creative, professional, adult who just happens to be happily married and living in the suburbs. What makes this so appealing to audiences, in addition to Nordstrom's easy-going style and self-parodying humor, is just how relatable Nordstrom, his wife, and his situation is to our own, or someone we know.

As a performer, Nordstrom hits all the right notes. He has a strong mid-range, but can comfortably stretch higher or lower, as the song requires. His voice has a pleasant, textured tone that he uses to his advantage on songs that are best interpreted with a hint of bad boy -- and since a hint is about as far as Nordstrom can carry off "bad," it works well. His song selection and narrative form an engaging, humorous story arc, following Nordstrom through his formative years and into adult responsibilities. 

Diary of An Almost Grown-Up starts out with the declarative "I Won't Grow Up," a rousing, spirited rendition that sets the tone for an evening celebrating the typical joys and pains of moving through our varied life stages. In this show, it's Nordstrom's youthful folly and lessons learned that color the picture and temper the material. Instead of heroic feats or glittering awards, we are presented with a multi-talented, optimistic everyman. "Something's Coming Up" captures that sense of independence, where anything is possible, but is countered when Nordstrom proceeds to discuss the series of jobs he's had. The good times catering to the stars are matched by the very worst aspects of being a "manny;" catering to the whims of a spoiled brat with a mean streak. This tale is brought to life with a delightful version of "Caralee," brimming with spite but never vicious or cruel. 

Nordstrom turns from his professional exploits to love, with the charming "Nerd Love," a duet with guest artist Taylor Pietz that's filled with flirtation, lust, and gleefully awkward moments. Pietz and Nordstrom complement each other, both vocally and in their enthusiastic recreations of telling moments. "The Space Between" and Blackbird are intimate and effective, particularly when followed by Boys, a haunting, harmonic duet with Nordstrom's second guest artist, Paul Cereghino. Nordstrom closes this section of his set with a return to a hopeful perspective in his pleasing familiar take on "Oh, What A Beautiful Morning."

Pietz returns for "The Temp and the Receptionist," bringing his professional and personal pursuits together to comic effect. A warm take on "Human Nature," followed by "To Excess and Business Time," are all interspersed with clever riffs on growing up, settling down, and the compromises and shifts we make as our needs and desires change. "Daydream Believer" brightens the room significantly with its bubbly, pop-infused hooks and sing-along chorus before transitioning into "The Seraph." Nordstrom, finding himself gainfully employed, happily married, and a parent, closes the evening with "Rocking the Suburbs" -- a faux-rebellious ode to having it all but keeping your quirks -- and an encore nod to Prince with the silly, but delicious, "Raspberry Sorbet."

Nordstrom and music director Justin Smolik clearly understand how to build an enjoyable evening of song and story, and Smolik's arrangements on several songs, including the ethereal "Blackbird," expertly capture Nordstrom's voice and the intended mood. In addition to guest artists Pietz and Cereghino, Nordstrom is accompanied by Smolik, on keyboards, and Jonathan Brown on bass and guitar, and Angelo Carrafa on percussion. 

Nordstrom's lively cabaret Diary of An Almost Grown-Up joyfully embraces the artist's expansive range, not only in terms of performance but in life experience and his pursuit of happiness. The result is a completely entertaining evening of song and storytelling that resonates with authenticity and natural exuberance. Additional performances of the cabaret are scheduled at the Emerald Room at The Monocle for June 17 and 18.

 

Ken Haller once again delights a St. Louis audience with his very special evening of songs by Stephen Sondheim. He first presented this masterfully-crafted cabaret evening some seven years ago at the Kranzberg. Since then he performed it in New York. The show is well worthy of revival and Haller has found the perfect home for it in the delicious Emerald Room at the Monocle in the Grove neighborhood.

Haller is a remarkable fellow. Not only is he a veteran actor and singer, but he's a highly esteemed pediatrician, educator, and civic leader for several beneficent causes. You can occasionally catch him discussing health topics on the radio where he comes across as a highly articulate world-class expert. In the intimacy of a cabaret Ken Haller is witty, rather avuncular, and utterly charming. The evening we saw him Ken's sinuses were having a little battle with St. Louis's pollen situation -- but the good guys easily won that fight.

Haller is a lifelong Stephen Sondheim addict, and in selecting songs he committed himself to an evening of "pure Sondheim" -- that is, only songs for which Sondheim wrote both the music and the lyrics. Haller stalwartly resisted urgings to include any collaborative pieces -- or even some songs that have simply become too, too popular. So he treats us to many less familiar -- even obscure -- Sondheim pieces. There are a few program differences from that earlier appearance at the Kranzberg.

All of us folks who are tired of curtain speeches were delighted when Haller presented that de rigueur "turn off all those noisy things" request and other standard proscriptive messages in the form of the "Invocation and Instructions to the Audience" from The Frogs. This is followed by a lively and life-affirming "Everybody Says Don't" from Anyone Can Whistle.

From here he proceeds to introduce us to songs from a full half-century of shows by this remarkable man. Some of these shows have a very curious history: The Frogs is an adaptation from Aristophanes, which opened in swimming pool at Yale. Saturday Night is a 1954 show which died aborning; it never opened, because the producer died.

"What More Do I Need?" is a lovely romantic number from Saturday Night. There are other love songs, such as "Not a Day Goes By" and "We Had a Good Thing Going" from Merrily We Roll Along. Some of Sondheim's songs are quite word-heavy -- the busy lyric easily dominating the melody. Such a one is "With So Little to Be Sure of" from Anyone Can Whistle; it's almost like recitative. But Sondheim's lyrics are always so meaningful, and Ken Haller presents them with such understanding -- and such enunciation.

There's that boisterously New Yorkish and theatrical song, "Broadway Baby" from Follies. There is a show-stopping rapid-fire patter song -- "I'm Not Getting Married Today" from Company. Haller delivers this with such astonishing, scorching velocity that he makes Gilbert and Sullivan's "Modern Major General" seem positively lento. It's hilarious!

There are a variety of other songs -- thoughtful, lonely, funny, loving. But by far the gem of the evening is one where Haller just can't resist breaking his own rule against really popular stuff; his spoofing version of "Send in the Clowns" thoroughly skewers Barbara Streisand who successfully asked Sondheim to write new lyrics just for her. It's sheer brilliance!

When Ken Haller sings "Nothin's Gonna Harm You, Not While I'm Around," he sings it from the perspective of a pediatrician comforting a sick child. Sometimes Ken will, very concisely, give an unfamiliar deep insight into a song -- as when he summarizes "The Ladies Who Lunch" as criticism of others, then shame, then self acceptance.

Marty Fox does splendid work at the piano -- and he sings a bit too. Fox, by the way, will soon appear as the lead in Insight's upcoming production of Company.

The whole evening is presented with great care, intelligence and charm. It's called Song By Song By Sondheim. It's Ken Haller in cabaret at the Monocle. It played on April 28, 2016.

 

 

 

 

The Emerald Room at The Monocle (on Manchester Road in The Grove area of St. Louis) was recently the venue for a cabaret performance of "Rocky Horror and a Little Bit More," performed by five members of the Chicago Cabaret Project. The late (10:30 start), approximately one-hour show was packed with songs from Rocky Horror and others, some of which extended the horror/camp theme.

Costumed as Magenta, Meredith Freyre opened the show with the wholly appropriate Rocky Horror prelude, "Science Fiction Double Feature." This was the first of several songs she would be nicely belting that night. Jumping in to help with the vocals were Amy Armstrong, James Dunse (appearing as a respectable Frank N. Furter), Emcee Kyle Hustedt (costumed as, I think, a take on Riff Raff), and Kyle Russell, dressed as something with cat ears and bright fur vest (what that would have been, I don't have a clue!). Other "Rocky" songs included "Sweet Transvestite," "Damnit, Janet," "Toucha Touch Me," and, of course, "Time Warp." Although strongly encouraged to vocally and physically join in with gusto on this latter number, it appeared most of the audience was a tad reticent, at best mumbling some of the better-known lyrics along with the cast.

Non-"Rocky" songs included "Abba Dabba (Honeymoon)," "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park," "That Old Black Magic," and "Putting on the Ritz." Amy Armstrong also belted a Mama Cass song as a tease for her upcoming Mama Cass tribute cabaret show "Mama's Big Ones," also to be performed in The Emerald Room.

Ron Bryant, a local St. Louis pianist and accompanist, ably supported all five singers. Ron also plays other gigs at The Monocle through the week. He was given his improvisational head for several musical interludes during some of the songs, and didn't disappoint.

Lots of good-natured cast interaction (among themselves, and with the audience) was to be had, with much to do about the cleavage Meredith Freyre was not shy in displaying. Some a little blue, but it WAS late and an adult audience. Indeed, I thought a good time was had by all.

Technically, the lighting was inspired and appropriate, but the entire cast--within a few feet of the audience--had microphones, so at times things got a tad too loud.

It was announced during the show that "Rocky Horror and a Little Bit More" would be back for an encore performance at The Monacle in The Emerald Room some time this summer. 

 

 

 

It was just over thirteen years ago that I was first enchanted by KT Sullivan in cabaret at the Grandel. Now she's back in a splendid evening at the Gaslight, a featured star in that theater's cabaret festival. This time she brings with her a most talented and charming partner, Jeff Harnar, in an evening of pure Stephen Sondheim they call "Another Hundred Years." 

Ms. Sullivan has long been a luminary in the world of cabaret, but she also has an impressive resume in musical theatre -- on Broadway and elsewhere. The lady retains her glamour and wit, and vocally though her vibrato is a tiny bit broader she's certainly still in top form. She can be warm and lush or bright and exciting. She retains a purity of tone even when she sings in what seems to be a whisper (though it's perfectly audible). Her early training in opera has given her the technical skills that make her performance seem so effortless, but cabaret is definitely her mètier. She knows these songs, she loves them, and she makes that love contagious.

Jeff Harnar is a trim, dapper, personable youngish man. His baritone voice is as smooth as supple chamois leather. He makes a near-ideal partner for Ms. Sullivan as they lead us through a vast tapestry of Stephen Sondheim songs.

The tiny Gaslight Theater provides a wonderful intimacy. Every syllable, every tiny graceful turn of Sondheim's lyrics is clearly heard and understood; this is so important with Sondheim, who showers us with wit and intellect and vocabulary, surprising little internal rhymes, and subtle, almost subliminal references. To cite just two examples: "Nature fashioned you," a lyric occurring in a song from Follies, refers to "You Were Meant for Me" (1929). And "Every day a little death" from A Little Night Music is perhaps only an unconscious reference to the French term for "orgasm": la petite mort.

Sullivan and Harnar treat us to some forty songs from fifteen different "pure Sondheim" shows -- that is, shows in which he created both music and lyrics. These range from the vastly popular A Funny Thing Happened, Into the Woods, Company, Night Music, Sunday in the Park, Sweeney Todd and Follies to far more obscure works. Mr. Harnar does lovely work with "Live Alone and Like It" and "More" from the movie Dick Tracy and he introduces us to the gorgeous "Sand," where love is ever-shifting; it's from the never-produced 1992 show Singing Out Loud

Sullivan and Harnar give a lively vaudeville sense to "On My Left" and "Bounce" from Road Show which never made it to Broadway. There's a beautiful "Take Me to the World" from the 1966 TV film, Evening Primrose (based on the John Collier short-story).

The Girls of Summer is a true gem, though it was only incidental music in a straight play. We even get "So Many People" from 1954's Saturday Night, which never opened because it's lead died. And as a final encore we get "How Do I Know?" which Sondheim wrote when he was fifteen!

Harnar shows himself a past master of the lightning-fast patter song, and Ms. Sullivan is a grand delight in a number from Follies where in portraying some Bronxy chorus girls she's almost a ventriloquist to herself. Together they finish "Who Wants to Live in New York" (from Merrily We Roll Along) by blending their voices into a most convincing train whistle. And tipsily sipping cocktails, they make "The Ladies Who Lunch" both funny and intensely poignant.

Throughout the evening Ms. Sullivan uses her beautiful large features -- and her perceptive phrasing -- to reveal the real drama in many songs. "Send in the Clowns" was gorgeous.

Mr. Harnar gives us a skillful "Ballad of Sweeney Todd," and "Careful the Things You Say" (from Into the Woods), though with these I felt that a touch more rubato -- placing certain words just a fraction off the beat as is commonly done -- would have given more menace.

Several songs are sung by the not-expected gender: for example Harnar sings Little Red's "I Know Things Now" from Into the Woods and "Getting Married Today" from Company, and Sullivan sings "Pretty Women" from Sweeney Todd. I know that everything is fair game in today's gender-fluid world, but let's face it: a nervous groom is simply different from the cliché nervous bride, and male lustful musings are peculiarly male.

Sondheim is a very lyric-heavy songwriter. He rarely gives us songs with what in more conventional works is called "the chorus," where the familiar tune and words are repeated. In this evening we utterly bathe in Sondheim -- and it's a little like an evening of beautiful, cleverly rhymed recitative. This intimate venue and these articulate singers allow Sondheim's lyrics to be every bit as important as his music.

As advertised it's an evening of "pure Sondheim" -- just his songs, not even the usual banter from the performers--just Sondheim. The rule of the evening was: "No talk!" How refreshing! Unlike so many St. Louis cabaret singers these masters of the craft realize that the evening is not about them, it's about the songs.

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