Aside from knowing who you are, one of the most important hurdles every cabaret performer faces in putting an act together is choosing the right songs. How do you know if the song is right for you? Does it suit your emotional vocabulary? Will it work in the show? Where should it be placed? Do you understand the song? If you don't know the answers to these questions, you aren't ready to get on that stage.
Firstly, all songs performed in cabaret are sung out of context. Most singers are clueless as to the writer's original intent. This may not be considered essential knowledge, but it may help you get a handle on a song, inspire you to find a fresh, new interpretation, or even return a song to its original roots.
Seeing other performer's shows is invaluable to see what works and what doesn't. Using your imagination and instinct is often the best source. Reams have been written on the subject in this column, and space limitations prevent me from reiterating all that needs to be said about finding the right songs to fit your show. However, recent outings by artists at all levels proved that one thing is always certain: Choosing the right material for a show, regardless of your level, will make or break your act and, in some cases, your career.
Take the case of the wonderful Carol Woods, returning to cabaret stages after too long an absence. In her new show, "Stick Around," directed by Jack Wrangler at Arci's Place, she follows a loose theme about her life and times on, Off-, and near Broadway. The show features an eclectic mix of standards, blues, and contemporary songs.
As an artist, Ms. Woods has no identity problem; she knows exactly who she is and her songs reflect her confidence and sanguine outlook on life. For instance, she immediately nailed the room by the second chorus of her throw away opener, "Come Rain Or Shine," which had the SRO opening night crowd interrupting her with cheers and applause. She established herself with the Adams/Strouse "Stick Around" (from "Golden Boy"), with some special lyrics by Wrangler. Her phrasing and enunciation were perfect on the Bacharach/David "Alfie," which segued into a poignant reading of Rupert Holmes' "The People That We Never Get to Love." Other highlights included a profound "Hey There" leading into Francesca Blumenthal's "The Lies of Handsome Men," which became an ode to comfortable despair that was riveting.
What make Woods' act such a standout are her strong sense of identity, her desire to please, and her lack of pretense when bantering about her impressive theatrical credits.
While it wasn't all perfect (some patter was a bit cutesy for this earthy, red hot mama.) and not all the songs were prime choices, Carol Woods is such a gregariously warmhearted artist that she made it work, pulling off one of the most entertaining acts in town. Newcomers can learn plenty from this powerhouse show, continuing through Feb. 24.
I wish I could say the same about George Pellegrino. New to cabaret stages, his show, "More," directed by Nicole Halmos at Judy's Chelsea, is a chorus boy's fantasy about life on the big stage. He admits to "loving women's roles more than men's"—and proceeds to sing a bunch of songs for the ladies. This could have been real fun if he took the time to set it all up properly, and then didn't try to emulate the ladies who made them famous. By trying so hard, most of the warhorses lost their sense of purpose. He belts out "Rose's Turn" from "Gypsy" with the zealous approach of a clueless cutey at a cattle call. Why any male singer would put this warhorse in a show escapes me. He had nothing identifiable with the song and it did little to show off his rich pipes. His lineup of songs also included an over-zealous "Welcome To My Party" and an innocuous "money medley" that short changed the audience—and himself. On Wildhorn's "Big Time," he was worked too hard at belting out a song that was wrong for his style. This is a simple case of a young talent with a lot to offer in need of guidance. Model handsome with a gentle, lyrical voice, he was particularly effective on some well-sung ballads, such as a truly beautiful "Hold Me" by Brian Lasser and a beautifully delivered "When You Wish Upon A Star." In both cases, he allowed himself to be vulnerable, and a natural innocence that is his forte shone through.
Pellegrino, who is appearing at the club through February at assorted dates and times, has a lot to learn about performing in an intimate venue. However, in spite of some not-so-great song choices and a need to connect better with his material, I do think he is an engaging, energetic performer with a good set of pipes. He will find his way with practice and by checking out other male performers on the circuit. For now, he's full of charisma and charm; with a smile like that, he can't lose.
Making her cabaret bow in the states, London stage star Ruthie Henshall showed off a great set of pipes and a buoyant charisma that was impressive in her show at the FireBird Café. She has become a major musical theatre presence in London and New York during the last decade, moving up the ladder from smaller roles to starring ones in a string of hit shows, including "Miss Saigon," "Cats," "Les Misérables," "Oliver!," "Crazy For You," "Chicago," and "Putting It Together." Most recently, she was specially chosen to close "Miss Saigon" on Broadway in the role of Ellen.
The overly familiar signature tunes from these shows formed the centerpiece of her act. To her credit, Henshall had some sterling moments. She often soared with assorted anthems from the aforementioned shows. Throughout, she peppered the set with numerous (sometimes overly talkative) funny anecdotes about herself and her career. In fact, she told a bit more than was needed. So many familiar blockbusters like "Memory," "I Dreamed A Dream," and "Rose's Turn" ultimately grew weary and became self-indulgent clichés.
This attractive lady has what it takes for the stage: a terrific belt voice, buoyancy, and a quirky persona that is quite endearing. I loved her confidence and self-deprecating humor. Now she needs an act designed to show off all her attributes in an intimate setting in order to find a more personalized identity—and go the distance. The intimacy of cabaret calls for more closeness, sophistication, and less tooting of one's own horn. Henshall is back at the FireBird this coming Sunday, Feb. 11, at 9 pm.
Also making her local debut, singer Denise Whelan is a most pleasant surprise at Don't Tell Mama, where she is currently running in her show, "Extinct Soprano," throughout February. The show, directed by Don Bovingloh with Jeff McDonnell as music director, is a delightful mix of songs that express much about who she is; the audience leaves knowing this whimsical lady with the terrific voice and bubbly personality. A warm soprano with beautiful chest tones, she poked fun at how rare soprano roles are. (She recently played Rebecca in "Rags" at Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre, a role created on Broadway by legendary soprano Teresa Stratas.) Several impressive highlights included "On My Way To You" and a trilogy that fused Jerry Herman's "Love Is Only Love" with Sondheim's "There Won't Be Trumpets" and "Can That Boy Foxtrot." Whelan charmed everyone. Let's hope we see more of her in cabaret.
Important news for artists and booking managers: Performing Arts Insider is a weekly listings publication geared toward media and theatre professionals that covers theatrical listings and information. (You can buy it at the Drama Book Shop or by subscription.) Recently, they've expanded, and the news is great for cabaret: cabaret rooms with listings are now included. This is a terrific, comprehensive guide and offers cabaret performers as well as booking managers the opportunity to promote shows in a publication that is a great addition to the community. They will accept press releases, tapes, reels, etc., from both individuals and managers, but suggest that the best thing to do is encourage the club you're working in to send in their performance itinerary every week. The address: Performing Arts Insider, P.O. Box 62, Hewlett, N.Y. 11557-0062, Att: David Lefkowitz.
IN THE CLUBS: Don't miss dynamite singer Marcus Simeone, who returns to Don't Tell Mama with Rob LaRocca on Feb. 11, 20, and March 2 ... Aaron Lee Battle's new show, "Step Right Up," is running at Judy's Chelsea Fridays at 8:30 pm in February ... Newcomer Deborah Bean's show, Songs of the Heart" is at Arci's Place on Mondays in February at 8 pm ... Jazz prodigy Peter Cincotti, who has toured with Harry Connick, Jr., is doing sets at The Knickerbocker through Saturday, with sets starting at 9:30 pm ... Singer Ron Ramsay's show, "Go With Me," directed by Eric Michael Gillett, has been extended at Judy's Chelsea. He's there Feb. 7, 8, 15, 22, and March 6 and 13 at 8:30 pm ... Sarah Dacey Charles offers "Wrong!—Songs My Mother Wouldn't Approve Of" at Don't Tell Mama Sundays, Feb. 11, 18, and March 2, 9, and 25.