Surfing the Clubs
In Richard Skipper's new show at Don't Tell Mama, "An Evening With Carol Channing," he not only looks and sounds like that Broadway deity, he is, given the venue, unquestionably the Dolly Mama. Skipper sparkles with the glow of Channing's charisma, but the extra shine you see on the stage is a product of a diamond-like brilliance that is his alone. That's why the multi-faceted Skipper can create and sustain a riotously funny show that lasts a generous one hour and twenty-five minutes. His forte is an ability to involve the audience without ever losing control of the show. In his capable hands, the act is a riotous interactive experience. He tosses off quips and ad-libs at the speed of comic lightning, but as the jokes rarely embarrass the paying customers, he never loses the affection of the audience. When, early in the show, he sings "My Personal Property" (Coleman/Fields), he might as well be singing about the patrons. He's so flamboyantly funny that, as impressive as he is nailing Channing's singing style, it's his playful patter that makes the evening so acutely memorable.
Structured as an autobiography, he tells—and sings—us Channing's life story. When she gets her start, for instance, he sings "The Girl in the Show" (Gaynor). At a time when she's between shows and hits the nightclub circuit, he sings "Jazz Baby" (Jerome/Merrill). Throughout the act Skipper milks tunes for laughs, as he does with "Mean to Me" (Turk/Ahlert), but he can also change the pace to sweetly perform "It Only Takes a Moment" (Herman). The show features lusty arrangements by the talented David Maiocco, who usually accompanies Skipper. At our performance, however, the superb Mark Hartman stepped in to play the piano on short notice, and his work was such that Skipper never skipped a beat. Add to that the sharp direction by Thomas Morrissey and the amusing backup dancing by Jon Kowalski and Luke Rawlings, and you have an unqualified musical comedy gem. With just the right tweaking, "An Evening With Carol Channing" could easily transfer from its cabaret setting to an Off-Broadway stage. And it should.
Terri White is a tough act to follow, but Kimlee Hicks is a major talent in her own right. She is truly Joplinesque when she wails her way through Kris Kristofferson's "Bobby McGee," and she is versatile and full-throated when she turns to pop tunes like "Heat Wave." Her concentration in the raucous piano bar atmosphere is impressive. Michael Dionne has a warm, good-natured sensibility that translates into easy charm. Regardless of who's singing, Michael Barbieri is a delightfully enthusiastic backup singer behind the bar. He is also the central member of the ever-revolving and precisely choreographed tambourine team (made up from those not singing lead) that enhances so many songs. Together, the rapport among the performers is a pleasure, especially when Terri White plays the liquor bottles at the back of the bar like a xylophone while the rest of the troupe shake their tambourines and sing "Under the Sea" (Menken/Ashman).
Much of the music centers on '60s and '70s pop tunes, particularly when Billy Graves holds court. Hanging out for the better part of four hours, we can report that Graves often plays too long between appearances by the featured entertainers. He's a solid pianist, but he doesn't sing with much sensitivity—and he relies far too much on a synthesizer both when he's singing and when he's accompanying the others. His dryly-delivered patter is far more winning. Altogether, though, the piano bar on Saturday night at Rose's Turn is a great place to go because, in this case, where there's smoke there is most assuredly a great deal of musical fire.