When you see a Harry Connick, Jr., Patti LaBelle, or Barry Manilow break box office records, you're seeing the results of a publicity blitz and hype that cost big bucks, and you're seeing good management and good press relations. But the first step to becoming a star is building an audience. A performer who fills a room never lacks bookings, and eventually attracts the right attention—once it has been earned.
This brings me to some performers who, despite their individual potential, are getting off on the wrong foot. Why? Simply put, the biggest and most common mistake made by new performers is to invite critics to their shows before they're ready to be reviewed.
In the case of 21-year-old newcomer Kristopher McDowell, rarely has a new artist on the scene been so aggressively promoted. It has been virtually impossible to avoid seeing his face on numerous large ads all over the place. But can McDowell live up to the hype that he and his producer, John Jerome, have created? Regrettably, at this time, the answer is no.
Celebrating the release of his debut CD, he is appearing on Tuesdays in November at the Laurie Beechman Theater at the West Bank Café. His show is called "Faces of Love—The Act," directed by Barry Kleinbort, with Christopher Denny as musical director. The eclectic show has some excellent song choices and beautiful arrangements by Denny. The main through-line has McDowell singing songs that were written since his birth in 1978! The interesting line-up included Brenda Russell's "Get Here," Jimmy Webb's great "All I Know," Maltby and Shire's "I Hear Bells," and Lennon/McCartney's "The Long And Winding Road." In a shaky voice with a pronounced wobble, McDowell executed most of the songs haltingly, and was overwhelmed by the material. His over-rehearsed patter was bland and missed the punch necessary to be entertaining. Ultimately, he came across as exactly what he is—a rank amateur who needs to learn the ropes before inviting the press and spending a small fortune promoting an act that is far from ready.
To give McDowell his due, he is a handsome guy with a winning personality. He seems like a nice, intelligent young man who knows how to make friends. In fact, the sold out room was overflowing with members of the cabaret community who you might expect to see at the MAC Awards. (Several MAC board members were spotted in the club, which is a rarity lately.)
Also, to be fair, McDowell had his moments. He was sincere and vulnerable singing "Let's Make Memories" by Jane Olivor and John Darrow, and gave a sweet reading of "Something More" by Elmer Bernstein and Don Black. Here, he sang in a warm, folksy style that suited his limited range well. He allowed charm and heart to rise to the surface on these tunes, and above all, he connected to the material and to his audience—something he needs to practice.
On the other hand, songs like Rupert Holmes' "The People That You Never Get To Love" or Alan O'Day's "Train of Thought" call for more fragility and are beyond his grasp at this stage.
To put McDowell in perspective, you might recall that, about a year and a half ago, I reviewed newcomer Tim Draxl, who was then only 17 years old. I remarked that it is easy to take potshots at a young kid on a cabaret stage. However, the more experienced Draxl, who won a MAC award for Male Debut this year, was very commanding and confident. The Australian knew how to take the stage and grab an audience—something McDowell will learn in time. My point is that it takes time to hone your craft.
Right now, McDowell doesn't have a strong stage identity and lacks the vocal prowess for complex songs. The wobble (some of which might be the result of nerves) can be fixed with the right vocal coach. Once he is ready, the right songs will find their way into his life.
I would also suggest that McDowell find a good career manager and chart out a strategy that will serve him best. I'm not wasting all this space to harm him. I believe he is talented and I see potential. I also see him graduating to the next level and moving up the ladder—once he has earned his diploma.
Across town at The Algonquin' Oak Room on Nov. 6 and 13, jazz stylist Karen Oberlin was celebrating the release of her debut CD, "My Standards" (Miranda Records). Here, the offerings were polished and more refined. Though still a bit early to call in the press, Oberlin's show was enhanced greatly by incredible arrangements by Lee Musiker, with Sean Smith on bass. Musical director Musiker displayed flawless playing and breathtaking solo riffs. Also, Oberlin's songs were very well chosen, making for a pleasant, if bland hour.
Oberlin is a lovely lady with a warm delivery and a plaintive, genteel voice that calls for more depth and color. Several selections were delivered with a certain sameness. For instance, on "It Never Entered My Mind," the Rodgers and Hart beauty, she needed to dig deeper. Oberlin walked through this classic casually, rather than snag the underlying heartbreak of the trenchant lyric.
However, Oberlin shone on the numbers she connected with. The best example was a beautifully sung "Since You Stayed Here" that proved to be her finest moment. Here, she displayed exceptional phrasing and vocals. Totally gracious and likeable, Oberlin shows promise of good things to come. While her ballad-heavy show calls for more fun, she was terrific on an upbeat, jazzy reading of "Doodlin'." If Oberlin can work on being more vocally diverse and let herself go, I can only predict a bright future for her.
Chicago-based singer Alexandra Billings has been doing some shows at Don't Tell Mama to promote her debut CD, "Being Alive" (Southport.) Unlike the aforementioned artists, Billings has no publicity machine pushing her to death, and gets by through gutsy delivery and a lot of talent. From the same school that spawned bold entertainers like Sharon McNight and Pudgy, Billings is fully in touch with who she is and infuses raw emotion into songs like Frank Wildhorn's, "I Want More," a Linda Eder concert staple, and a tour de force reading of Carly Simon's gorgeous "Let The River Run."
Following a loose structure and trading hysterical quips with the audience a la Pudgy, Billings, like Bette Midler, has the room in stitches one minute and wiping their eyes the next. This is not a perfect act. ("The Trolley Song" and "You Made Me Love You" didn't quite fly.) But Billings has developed into a top-notch artist and is worthy of more attention and a larger audience. This is one hell of a talent. In an age where smug patter has become a cliché, Billings is a genuine entertainer with one of the best belt voices since Ethel Merman. Closing the hour with an impassioned, powerfully delivered "Come Sail Away," (by DeYoung) she makes a mark that is unforgettable.
IN THE CLUBS: Alan Bergman does one week at the Oak Room at The Algonquin with Karen Mason Nov. 28-Dec. 2… Baby Jane Dexter brings her all new show, "Making Every Moment Count," into the FireBird Café for four weeks Dec. 6-30… Joy Behar and Tom Postilio are Angela LaGreca's special guests for Monday Night Madness at Don't Tell Mama at 9 pm… Lina Koutrakos returns to the Bottom Line for two shows on Nov. 30 at 7:30 and 10:30 pm… Singer James Alexander appears at Don't Tell Mama in his show, "Anyone Who Has A Heart," on Nov. 25, 26 and Dec. 3… Also at Mama's is Jim Van Slyke in his show, "Re-Released," on Dec. 8, 9, and 10… Last chance to catch award winner Jeanne MacDonald celebrating the release of her lovely new CD, "Company," at the FireBird this Sunday at 9pm… Bistro and MAC winner Tom Andersen will sing to commemorate World AIDS Day on Dec. 1 at 6 pm at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center (1 Little W. 12th St.) Information: (212) 620-7317… And 2000 Bistro winner Ruby Rims' "Teddycares" kicks off a month of Fridays at Judy's Chelsea on Dec 1 with two shows at 8:30 and 11 pm. As always, the stellar line-up of Broadway and cabaret talent is extraordinary. Information and reservations: (212) 929-5410.
NOTE: There will be a benefit for "Operation Santa Claus," a Postal Service Worker's charity that helps needy kids and families, on Monday, Dec. 4 at West Bank's Laurie Beechman Theater, produced by Jamie deRoy & friends and Maryann Lopinto, at 8 pm. Special guests include: Mario Cantone, Daisy Eagan, Judy Kaye, Kristopher McDowell, Spider Saloff, and James Beaman. Reservations: (212) 695-6909.