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Excellence and Disappointments

I returned from vacation last week and was greeted with a mixed bag. No, my luggage wasn't swapped with someone else's; I'm referring to the cabaret offerings I saw during the week. I'll address them in chronological order, starting with Jeanne MacDonald's very fine show at Eighty Eight's (Fridays 11 pm, through Feb. 12), directed by Scott Samuelson and musical direction by Rick Jensen. (If the truth be known--and it be--I actually saw this show when it debuted in October, but this seems like a swell time to talk about it.)

The evening gives ample proof of why MacDonald has garnered so much acclaim and affection; it's so strong, in fact, I could pretty much comment at random. She imbues "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" with inner joy (she practically owns a patent on this quality), and follows it with a rendition of Jensen's "Amanda Sang" that captures all the warmth in that lovely song. A pairing of Sondheim's "Not a Day Goes By" and "Company" by Rickie Lee Jones and Alfred Johnson is extraordinary: The juxtaposition and the arrangement give a cosmic, eternal dimension to the singer's emotional state. And with Christine Lavin's "A Musical Apology," MacDonald displays her characteristic light-but-deft comic touch. My sole reservation is a counterpoint arrangement of "Skylark" and "Spring Harvest," in which the songs distract from each other.

At Joe's Pub, singer David Campbell teamed with songwriter-pianist-singer John Bucchino in a three-performance airing of Bucchino's songs. Though a few of the pieces were discardable, the vast majority were quite worthy, and several were exceptional. Highlights included "What You Need," a stylized song filled with soul and heart; the whimsical "My Alligator and Me," which captures the imagination of a child; and "Sweet Dreams," which is a great song. The evening built to a stunning conclusion: three selections from a musical called "Urban Myths." Sung by two lovers, one of whom is dying, these songs are powerful and deeply moving. Campbell's performance was splendid on all counts, Bucchino's accompaniment was fervent and impressive, and the camaraderie between the two men was a pleasure to see.

At Don't Tell Mama, Bill Lobley wrote and performed "One Man Show--The True Story of Ryan McElroy, New York Actor" directed by Linda Ames Key, with musical direction by Annie Lebeaux. The fictitious McElroy is a pathologically optimistic theatrical wannabe, who comes to New York to be an actor. It's clear that Lobley is a funny, clever, and appealing fellow, and the show's humor came from the right place; however, the writing lacked cleverness, sharpness, invention, and most seriously, laughs. As a result, although the dialogue and action proceeded at a fair pace, the evening seemed sluggish. Not terrible, but not terribly entertaining, either. Another point: The show's premise is uncannily like the setup for Peter-Michael Marino's two "Lance Jonathan" shows, which played in the same room, so comparisons are inevitable--and in this case, regrettable--for Marino's shows have it in spades over this one. Performers must be aware of the playing field. For example, if you're planning an evening of Vernon Duke songs, and someone has just done a wildly successful Duke show, you'd better make sure yours is at least as good, or else put it on the back burner for a while. (I understand that Lobley saw Marino's show and didn't see the similarity. Hello!)

Also at Mama's, Gustav Vintas came to town with "Merci Maurice," his meticulously researched one-man show based on the life and songs of Maurice Chevalier. While we learned a lot about Chevalier, "Merci Maurice" suffered from a problem common to "cavalcade" shows: it tried to cover too much ground, with most of the songs performed in severely abbreviated versions, so the show paraded past us, seldom engaging our emotional involvement. Better to focus on significant highlights; give us fewer numbers, but give each one greater weight. Also, there was an unvarying, somewhat unrelenting quality to Vintas's approach to many of the songs, with few peaks, valleys, and contours. How much more effective when he sang a sweetly understated "Louise," or when he did "Valentine" as a full number, not just a snippet. And the extended segment he performed from Chevalier's farewell concert was extremely affecting. The ever-present hand-held mike he used seemed to constrain him--or, rather, it gave me the uncomfortable feeling that it was constraining him; a body mike would have been a better choice.

At FireBird Cafƒ, composer Nancy Ford (of Cryer and Ford fame) is holding forth through Feb. 6 (remaining showtimes Thurs. 9 pm, Fri. and Sat. 9 and 11 pm). She's opted to do a program of mainly other people's work: songs that influenced her as she was growing up. In a fruity mezzo--I mean this not as a criticism, but as a description, for hers is an attractive voice--she sings standards by Kern, Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, et al. She's very likable, and this is all most agreeable, if this side of distinctive. The evening becomes distinguished when she performs her own songs: the lushly romantic "Rain Your Love on Me," the cynical waltz "You Can Kill Love," the sharp but refreshing "The News," and of course, the classic and wonderful "Old Friend." There's also the sweet "Listen to the Rain," which she wrote with Tom Jones. Next time out, I encourage her to do only original songs--they're what makes her special.

Christine Pedi is a delightful and gifted musical comedienne, as her performances in "Forbidden Hollywood" and "Forbidden Broadway" have demonstrated. Among the pleasures of her recent debut solo cabaret show at Don't Tell Mama were a number that turned Anna Karenina's suicide into the most gleeful of events, and "I Will Survive," done in the voices of Eartha, Bette, Carol, Ethel, and Liza. Among the serious selections, her interpretation of Amanda McBroom's "Errol Flynn" was very touching. Several numbers were less successful; for example, the opening number had no particular point of view or purpose, "New Words" was okay but lacked that "ahhh" quality, and her rendition of "My Simple Christmas Wish" was simply not as good as Alix Korey's definitive version. Throughout, musical director Gerry Dieffenbach was a joy.

Around Town: Mary Testa and twin grand pianos make music at Garrick Gaieties, Feb. 5-March 6, Tuesdays-Thursdays 9:30 pm, Fridays-Saturdays 10:30 pm . The Jakes cavort Upstairs at Rose's Turn Sat., Feb. 6, 10 pm . At Don't Tell Mama: Ken Roberson, Fridays Feb. 5 and 12, 11:30 pm, Feb. 19 and 26, 9:30 pm; "Max & Maxine: Together Again," Wednesdays 9 pm, through Feb. 24; Michael Vaccaro's "The Life and Times of Billy Rae," Fri., Feb. 12, 9:30 pm, Sun., Feb. 21, 5 pm, Sat., Feb. 27, 9 pm; Frank Dain, Wednesdays 7 pm, through March 10 . Natalie Gamsu is doing two different shows, both at Eighty Eight's: Thursdays 8 pm: Feb. 4 and 18, Mar. 4 and 18, it's her Harold Arlen evening; Feb. 11 and 25, March 11 and 25, it's "Karizmatik" . Also at Eighty Eight's, Anne Roberts sings Tuesdays 8 pm, through Feb. 23 .Laurie Krauz swings at Danny's Skylight Room Fridays in February, 9:15 pm . Steve Ross plays FireBird Cafƒ Feb. 9 through April 3, Tuesdays-Thursdays 9 pm, Fridays-Saturdays 9 and 11 pm. q

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