Neat Packages

In her new show, "Old Postcards," which ran in December at Mama Rose's, Audrey Lavine shined a light on some superb songs that, if not for cabaret, might disappear. The hour was wrapped in a neat package that recalled milestones in her professional life. Ross Patterson was musical director and H. Clark Kee directed. Lavine's previous act paid tribute to Harold Arlen. With "Old Postcards," she took a less conventional turn and ventured further into obscure musical territory than in past outings. The result was a memorable pastiche of beautiful songs.

Some of the nuggets she dug up ranged from a sturdy "no matter what" number called "Don't Play That Love Song Anymore, Sam" (Norman-More) from the 1981 one-night Broadway flop "The Moony Shapiro Songbook" to the reflective "When There's No One" from the 1988 five-performance Broadway flop "Carrie" (Gore-Pitchford). Lavine was an understudy in the former and a standby for Barbara Cook and Betty Buckley in the Stratford-on-Avon and New York productions of the latter, respectively. She linked the milestones together by reading snippets of souvenir postcards in lieu of patter. It was simple and cogent, with the readings setting up songs. Each was personal and somewhat sad in the ballad-heavy show. However, every song was persuasive and Lavine pulled them off with stylish elegance and her warm mezzo.

Highlights included a lustrous "Secret Gardens" by Judy Collins, a riveting "Blame It on the Summer Night" from "Rags" (Strouse-Schwartz), and a well-acted "The Miller's Son" from Sondheim's "A Little Night Music." Time will undoubtedly treat these songs kindly thanks to artists like Lavine, who not only help keep the American songbook alive, but keep expanding it by introducing newer generations to great material. She did an excellent job and, along with Patterson's lush, occasionally overbearing arrangements, infused each song with a singular blend of Broadway verve, art song refinement, and cabaret intimacy.

Joie de vivre! On the subject of refinement, international chanteuse and stunning socialite Yanna Avis brought her new show to the King Kong Room for three SRO performances in December. With musical director Dick Gallagher and direction by Thommie Walsh, the carefully crafted set allowed Avis to be the intimate, sexy illusion that she is—à la Dietrich in her prime. In fact, the Dietrich mainstay "Illusions" (Hollander) is a trademark number that defines her brand of flirtatious sex appeal fused with smoky haute-parlor cabaret. She has a soft, quicksilver vibrato that does justice to her ballads and makes them better than they might have been in lesser hands. Whether slithering on top of the piano, seductively teasing a gentleman in the audience, emoting Cole Porter, or vamping in French, Spanish, or German, Yanna Avis recalls an era when bubbly champagne and bubbly people filled nightclubs with elegance and a devil-may-care lifestyle that was once de rigueur in café society.

Her songs of romance and lost love fitted perfectly into her sullen alto as she caressed every lyric with the purr of a cat about to strike. What makes her such a success at her craft is that she never goes beyond her strengths—that, and her commitment to the message of the composer. Avis is classy and elegant, with a playful mystique that is rare. The prominent glitterati crowd of celebrities, intellectuals, and A-list friends cheering on one of their own was evidence that this lovely lady, who wears her music and mystery like a Blackglama, is one of our most beguiling chanteuses to embrace any stage, whether it be at the Spoleto Festival, on the Riviera, or in a gaudy Manhattan nightspot.

One can only hope that in the new year someone will decide on a new buzzword to replace the pathetically abused, valley-girlish "awesome." Nevertheless, it is the only word I can come up with to describe the likes of BJ Crosby and Darlene Love on stage in their first collaboration: a recent holiday concert at Symphony Space presented by Rrazz Productions. With last year's Bistro winner Ed Alstrom at the piano brilliantly leading the six-piece band and a choir, this concert was as uplifting as a revival meeting in the Bible Belt. Dazzling gospel, blues, carols, hot jazz, rock and roll, and a lot of powerhouse vocals swept the audience away.

Crosby had the crowd in the palm of her hand as she belted jazzy versions of "My Favorite Things" (Rodgers-Hammerstein) and "Circle of Life" (Rice-John). This lady can do no wrong when it comes to bringing down the house. Her fierce, multi-octave voice shatters all emotions as she loses herself in song and is always in the moment. As she glides up and down the scales, she is a vocal wonder who needs no microphone. This was most obvious on virtuoso readings of "Until the Real Thing Comes Along" (Cahn-Chaplin-Freeman-Holiner-Nichols) and Peter Allen's gem "Don't Cry Out Loud."

After intermission, Darlene Love burst onto the stage and also tore the place up with her brand of gleeful rock and roll that turns every number into a showstopper. Singing familiar hits and seasonal songs, Love showed she hasn't slowed down one bit. From a sensitive delivery on Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" to Marvin Gaye's "The Bells," she was captivating. But once she started Smokey Robinson's "It's Gonna Take a Miracle," which led into a string of her number-one golden oldies, this lady owned the building. It was loud. It was long. And it was great.

Both of these powerhouse divas have frequently appeared in cabarets like Joe's Pub and the Duplex and cabaret is richer for their talents. And both will be returning to smaller clubs in the future. Now that's awesome.

Former Jilly's owner and prominent defense attorney Tony Fusco returned to the Showroom at Dillon's in December for two shows to benefit MAC. With some of the best session and band musicians around, led by musical director Bob Kaye, Fusco offered a potpourri of schmaltzy and lounge-style songs that were crowd pleasers, in a show written and directed by Vicki Stuart. While he is still rough around the edges and needs to focus more on intimacy and direct contact with his audience, Fusco has the goods to become a serious contender on the lounge circuit if he wants. This will come with experience and if he hones his craft. That said, it is fair to say that this jazzy crooner, who sings with a lot of heart, knows how to touch an audience and create a sentimental mood. A Sinatra medley clicked to perfection, and his passion for the standards was evident as he committed to every sentimental lyric with flair, recalling a special era we'll never see again.