There's an aspect of cabaret performing that doesn't get talked about much. Or if it is talked about, it's not discussed enough. It's this: the balance any singer has to strike between what the artist wants to offer and what the audience expects to hear. It's a delicate balance, indeed, and perhaps one that differs from entertainer to entertainer. Judy Garland could never do a show without supplying "Over the Rainbow," while Nina Simone's crowd may have wanted "I Loves You, Porgy," but knew to be content with what the independent diva gave them. This touchy subject crossed my mind when I began thinking about a number of acts I've seen recently.
Take Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, for instance. Songwrit-ers celebrating the publication of their first-ever songbook (which, the cover trumpets, includes "Taylor the Latte Boy"), the enormously talented team has developed over the years into a proficient act. The old saw about nobody singing a song as well as its creators is, to a large extent, true, but it also covers a multitude of scratchy, tuneless chanting. (If you've ever heard recordings of Cole Porter intoning his ditties, you know what I'm talking about.) In the Goldrich-Heisler instance, however, the old saw is made refreshingly new. They do their songs with great verve, even though they always have someone(s) alongside them, like Scott Coulter. On one evening in the series they recently did at the (now policy-changed) King Kong Room, they brought Coulter, Kate "Miss America 1998" Shindle, and John Tartaglia.
They also brought along their familiar song bag. Starting with "Make Your Own Party," they tooted through a line of numbers that they've been doing for some time. They introduced only a couple of newly or recently minted items, "Dan, Dan the Soda Can" being one. At this point in their progress, they must do "Taylor," but they could probably exchange a few others for new or less well known canon items. Otherwise, they run the risk of being thought to be resting on fading laurels.
Devon Cass, who sure looks and sounds like Cher when he puts all the slap on, has no problem with the material he uses for his Cher show. He must thumb through—duh!—his inspiration's repertoire. Not rendering "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves" or "I Got You, Babe" or "Do You Believe in Love?" or you-name-the-hit would invite a rotten-tomato barrage. And the right entries were paraded at Cass' Fez gig weeks ago—in what some might call Cher's inimitable style. Since he was imitating it so well, of course, that style turns out to be entirely imitable.
Cass' problem was with the set's structure. A photographer and makeup artist who's trafficked with the greats and near-greats, he reviewed Cher's life over four decades. Because he did, he had to leave the stage for Bob Mackie-type costume changes that took an achingly long time to complete. During them, he ran not-very-funny videos, a few shamelessly self-promoting. If he showed slides of his transformation from Cass to Cher once, he showed them three or four times. There was also an interlude where Kate Botello impersonated Judy Garland for no convincing reason, and another where a Robert De Niro look-alike emerged from the audience.
What the audience was expecting was nonstop Cher, not a succession of stops and starts.
Hand Steve Tyrell a big cigar for giving his just-ended Feinstein's at the Regency patrons (there was a packed house of them) precisely what they hoped to get. (Tell him to wait until the show's over before he lights the Bloomberg-verboten stogie.) And Tyrell gave them their heart's desire in abundance: 18—count 'em—18 songs.
As a longtime A&R man (that'd be artists and repertoire man, for those not in the industry-jargon know), Tyrell has honed his skills at selecting the right piece of material for singers. He doesn't falter when he turns to choosing material for himself. His voice is gravelly yet, paradoxically, as soothing as Jergens lotion. The effect was enhanced by his singing some of the best and breeziest entries in the Great American Songbook, which he called "the country's greatest contribution to the arts."
Nothing Tyrell growled silkily is newer than 1945, and ran to Rodgers and Hart, Arlen and Koehler, Cole Porter, and Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields. (Tyrell got near to weepy when talking about Fields' son, David Lahm, coming to the show.) There was one exception to the pre-'45 cut-off—the program's title ditty, "This Guy's in Love With You" (Hal David-Burt Bacharach).
Tyrell cannot be accused of committing himself to the darker implications in any of the songs. Often, perhaps too often, he inserted the same George W. Bush-like smile between phrases, as if to say, "This guy's so in love with all of you that he doesn't want to disturb your serenity." On the other hand, he knew the audience was in a Valentine's Day mood—handholding, not head-holding. Also, Tyrell is in love with his musicians, and his appreciation of them is an integral part of what he does. The point of Tyrell's act is that he's not out to challenge but to reassure. He succeeded start to boffo finish.
Because Brian Allan Hobbs, another addition to the list of today's three-name composer-lyricists, had a publicist (or maybe she's an aide) ready to hand out a press kit for "Songbook: The Music of Brian Allan Hobbs," it seemed fairly safe to assume his Don't Tell Mama presentation last week was audience-ready.
It wasn't. Hobbs, who clearly aims to establish himself as a composer of note, certainly offered what he wanted to offer—songs he's written himself or with 11(!) different lyricists. But it can't be said he gave the audience what they wanted because, until he rose at the end of the set to bow with the singers helping him, he didn't seem to realize there was an audience. He never looked at it. Instead, he arrived on stage, sat at the piano, and played—usually chords only—19 songs without once uttering a word of explanation about any of them. Nor did he introduce the five singers dutifully plodding through his dramatic, though not especially melodic, numbers.
This wasn't a cabaret act; it was a backers' audition that seemed to have two goals: 1) to find backers for his work in general; and 2) to find backers for a musical called "The Many Women of Troy," from which six songs were sung. Michael Boynton, the lyricist for the project—which sounds as if it's a BMI Workshop-motivated adaptation of Euripides' "Trojan Women"—would seem to be Hobbs' most promising collaborator, and thin, beautiful Eden Espinosa his most promising interpreter.