Celebrating Original Artists and Material

Songwriter Kathy King Wouk, who describes herself as a "musical photographer," has mounted a semiautobiographical show to exhibit her tuneful images in a cabaret setting. The introspective result, "Woman Exposed: Musical Photographs of Love and Desire," written and narrated by Wouk, is running at the Duplex through April 16. It features the formidable singing talents of Lisa Asher, Allison Briner, and Barbara Brussell. Directed by Asher, with Jeff Waxman as musical director, the hour is an interesting, somewhat esoteric look at one woman's perspective on matters of the heart.

Many of Wouk's songs describe personal observations of love, loss, and spiritual revelation with a painful honesty. Take "The Twilight Years," the opening number, beautifully sung by Asher. In this folksy ballad, Wouk reflects back on her childhood, remembering her mother's piano playing. Later, in "My Mother Played the Piano," interpreted with gritty tenderness by Brussell, she recalls her mother's final years, when she couldn't remember how to move her fingers. "Her music lives in my veins," writes Wouk, and such poignancy permeates many of her songs, including the riveting "In the Middle of My Life," sung passionately by Briner.

At the top of the show, Wouk tells the audience, "A song becomes a musical photograph when its lyric and music produce an image that allows us to view the world, to see the nature of things." Those words define the show and her musical visions. However, by introducing every song—often with extended setups and quotes from the likes of French writers Henri Cartier-Bresson and Annie Ernaux—she slows the evening down. She is a lovely lady with a presence that is warm and intelligent. But such lengthy commentary calls for some editing. The three talented singers bring a sense of commitment to the material, enhanced by Waxman's skillful arrangements. Their ensemble numbers all work well, especially on the fun stuff. Each brings her own savvy and professionalism to songs that are not always easy to interpret, exploring nuance and exposing layers of meaning in Wouk's images set to music.

Also at the Duplex, making his recent cabaret debut, was Nick Cearley, an amiable, funny young man with a terrific set of pipes. He is poised and warm, and sings everything very well. In his show, "The Most Overdone Songs Ever: A Not So New Revue," directed by Phil Geoffrey Bond, with Ray Fellman as musical director, he showed good potential in an uneven hour. The concept is not totally new and might have benefited from more-dynamic song choices. Cearley got off to a fun start with an opening medley that fused "Home" from "The Wiz" (Smalls) with "Corner of the Sky" from "Pippin" (Schwartz). He followed that with a giant medley of snippets from Broadway musicals, which was a riot.

Cearley has a flair for comedy, and he also showed it off in "Sensitive Song" (O'Keefe-Benjamin), in which he disses a former lover as "a skanky, skanky whore." For a change of pace, he sang "Send in the Clowns" from "A Little Night Music" (Sondheim) as an 11 o'clock number. In this case, he should dig deeper and work on his phrasing. This lyric is too significant to be tossed off without the right pathos. As talented as he is, Cearley needs to bring more life experience to his ballads. He and Suzanne Fiore did a duet of Jason Robert Brown's "I'd Give It All for You" from "Songs for a New World," and this gave him his best interpretive moment. Cearley clearly has the goods, and I look forward to seeing him grow.

The Irish and the Americans share so many of the same artistic bloodlines that it's amazing they don't fuse more often into the kind of inspired musical marriage conjured up by Michael Londra. In his recent appearance at the Hideaway Room @ Helen's as part of its Irish festival, he made a compelling case for a cabaret exchange program. A first-rate Irish tenor who was the lead singer in "Riverdance" on Broadway, Londra boasts fluent tones that make for a gorgeous hour of song with excellent musical director John McMahon. His clarion voice is his calling card and he is used to singing in large concert halls with a big band backing him. Here, in the intimacy of one of the city's most appealing cabaret rooms, with just a piano and a bass superbly played by Marco Brehm, his expressive phrasing brought layers of meaning to some original and traditional songs.

Quipping, "No show tunes tonight, just songs from my home," Londra captivated his audience from start to finish. Opening with "Lift the Wings," a traditional Irish folk song, set the stage for the lilting ballads and heartfelt emotions to follow. His own "Do You Think of Me?" (written with Steve Skinner), about lost love, was dazzling in its simplicity. A haunting "Star of Cartagena" (also Londra-Skinner) was hypnotic in its gentle elegance. Showing his Irish humor, he quipped, "One reviewer said it sounds like Enya with balls!" Special guest Johnny Rodgers accompanied him at the piano on Rodgers' own elegant "Lullaby for the Sleepless Soul." And, of course, he sang "Danny Boy" as only a Celtic heart can. A moving original ode to Sept. 11 called "The Castle" closed the memorable hour. Michael Londra was a treat and, hopefully, he'll decide to return.

Wandering into Don't Tell Mama recently on a lonely Friday night proved to be a dynamite treat. I found myself enjoying the ongoing Gay & Lesbian Comedy Fest so much that now I can't wait to go back. Hosted by popular award-winning musical comic Sidney Myer, with a bevy of feisty comics on the bill, this event proved to be a homo hoot that should appeal to everyone regardless of their sexuality or lack thereof. Real comedy knows no gender. In fact, the SRO mixed room was filled with many straight couples holding hands and their sides while laughing out loud at these rising talents. The lively bill included fast-rising talents Danny Cohen, Adam Sank, David Hodorowoski, Daniella Foerste, and Ted McElroy. Space limitations stop me from expanding on this red-hot comedy experience (and I'm a real tough sell on comedy). They are bright, kinky, full of sociopolitical entendres, and as funny as it gets. A surprise the night I attended was Shawn Moninger, who stepped up to the microphone from his usual spot in the tech booth and tore the room up with silly observations about himself and his macho attempts at baseball. The crowd loved him. And they loved the Gay & Lesbian Comedy Fest.