In a kinda wonderful act at Judy's Chelsea, Leslie Anderson explains her show's called "Still Untitled" because, "I'm playing around with my image." In fact, she mentions the image thing more than once. Well, if she's looking for feedback, I'd say she shouldn't do too much playing around, because she's almost got her particular formula down pat. And it's a honey.
You see, there's something she does when she just stands there and sings—or just sits there and sings—that carries her so far into endearing she almost reaches enchanting. She's got a sweet, pure voice and an almost undetectable break, and when she holds one of her quiet notes, a vibrato warm as a Pendleton blanket soothes the room. Believe me, to polish up that image, she needn't do much more than what's she's doing at those moments.
They happen on her ballads and on her comedy material in equal measure, meaning that in the Even Stevens-Hillary Kanter-Greg Barnhill "Great Disguise"—where she insists "I'm not one to show emotion"—she nonetheless infuses the self-deprecating torch song with deep pockets of feeling. In the Tony Martin-Tim Nichols "I'll Think of a Reason Later," when she drops into a faint Southern drawl to itemize the ways in which she detests the other woman, she's still got that winning wile. And so it goes, with fab Bobby Peaco on piano, through Christine Lavin's "What Was I Thinking?" and the Johnny Mercer-Barry Manilow "When October Goes."
Anderson habitually mentions that she knows how much she sounds like Doris Day, and so makes sure to toss in a song that filmdom's famous dog lover might include. This time it's the raucous "Put 'Em in a Box, Tie 'Em With a Ribbon" that Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne must have had a great time throwing together. What strikes me as odd is that I could listen to Anderson all night long and never think of Doris Day. Yes, she does have a smile in her tone, as her supposed spiritual mentor did. But while I was listening and watching Anderson remain relatively calm or shake her booty—as she did in two opening numbers that should be dropped like a touchy subject at a church social—I was flashing on the likes of Betty Hutton, Judy Canova, Ann B. Davis, and Jane Russell. To be specific, Davis loomed when the brunette Anderson came out in a matronly Bill Rancitelli-Andrew Volpe jacket; Russell hovered when Anderson took off the wrap.
One of Anderson's highlight inclusions, during which she seizes the opportunity to play trombone and trumpet, is the irresistibly melodic Bob Gaudio-Bob Crewe : "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You." The phrase is, of course, what a good cabaret performer wants an audience to think or even say out loud. Anderson earns it.
Speaking of not being able to take your eyes from someone, Sally Kellerman is currently slinking around Feinstein's at the Regency. She says she's 63, and I'll have to believe her. Nonetheless, she looks years younger—shapely and strong as a caryatid. When she just stands there in her blonde gorgeousness with those cheekbones the best plastic surgeons couldn't implant and with that mouth Magritte would have died to paint, you definitely can't take your eyes off her.
When she opens that mouth to speak and sing, however, you have trouble keeping your eyes on her. Although the "M*A*S*H" alumna has played Manhattan rooms before (the late, lamented Reno Sweeney and Grand Finale), she's behaving as if she's never been on stage before or even been invited into polite society. True, she can access the smoked-silk voice that has made her "The Voice-Over Queen," but the range in which she employs it is narrow. This, however, is the least of the problems. The patter—some of it apparently ad-libbed—is embarrassing. The show carries the title "Sally Kellerman...More Than You Know," though "Sally Kellerman...More Than You Want to Know" would be more accurate. Does anyone need to hear that Sally was a virgin until she was "21 and three-quarters"? And what did she mean when she asked the courteous opening night crowd, "Are my clothes on?"
Entertainment veterans Ken and Mitzi Welch are credited with helping our gal Sal construct the act, the theme of which was women. So they, or Kellerman, or all three must have decided she should croon both "I'm a Woman" and "I Am Woman." Among other songs that have had better cabaret airings are Craig Carnelia's "Nothing Really Happened" and Stephen Sondheim's "Could I Leave You?" Okay, credit where it's due: Kellerman has the acting chops to bring the latter off. The tall drink of California water also does what may be the longest, most meaningless medley ever stapled together. It's a sequence of songs with words and/or music by women and harks back as far as Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic." I thought the lady wasn't going to stop until she reintroduced the ditties included in Eve's diary. Maybe Kellerman was suffering from comeback jitters. Whatever the problem, she performed like a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown who's just decided to go ahead with it.
Chicago-born Aussie Martin Lass has another Monday (Jan. 29) at Don't Tell Mama, where he's dipping a toe into the New York City cabaret scene before undoubtedly going on to international fame and his own PBS fund-raising special. Just call him Yanni with a fiddle, because he's a classically trained musician who appears to be finding happiness peddling violin to people who wouldn't be caught dead in a concert hall.
As he works that bow and those strong fingers with virtuosity and sways like a sapling in a wind, the longhaired Lass lad looks and is dressed like someone who might have followed Lizst into the best European salons. The style's gonna serve him well. Neither does it hurt that he couldn't be pleasanter relating autobiographical bits in between skittering from a Bach toccata to a hot-hot "Hot Canary" to "Orange Blossom Special" to a rather deft blending of Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" with a Rachmaninoff variation on that familiar Paganini theme. Though what Lass is doing isn't traditional cabaret, it's not an issue, because the boites are clearly not where he intends to linger.
Also not having much to do with cabaret as we know it was the late show I attended at Arci's Place during the weeklong Cabaret Symposium. Expecting to encounter former enrollees helping raise scholarship funds for the esteemed O'Neill Center course, I was confronted instead with singers somehow related to the late "Jekyll & Hyde." Some of them—Andrea Rivette, Charles Pistone, Brandi Chavonne Massey, Brandon Singleton—had voices like silver javelins piercing the sky, but what they were doing (testing audition songs, for instance) did little to honor the intimacy and attention to lyric content that's the essence of cabaret.