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Here's to the Ladies Who Sing

Polly Bergen hadn't sung in public for 35 years. Watching her perform at Feinstein's at The Regency, it's as if there's a dam bursting. But the flood of music is carefully directed to relieve the parched palates of cabaret patrons thirsty for talent. Taking us back to her breakthrough in the 1957 TV version of "The Helen Morgan Story," Bergen sings two songs from that show: "Why Was I Born" and "Bill" (the former Kern/Hammerstein II, the latter Kern/Wodehouse, with an unbilled assist from Hammerstein). She interprets the tunes with all the experience of her acting years, and puts them over with an aching vulnerability. Creating a live soundtrack to her life, Bergen sings "I Don't Remember Christmas" (Maltby/Shire), about a failed marriage, with a bitterness and pain that seem to rise up from the ashes in her soul. She also sings movingly of the fame she has known in Janis Ian's remarkable "Stars." What distinguishes Bergen as a cabaret singer is the gravitas she brings to each number. You hear it when she digs deep to find the truth in Sondheim's "The Ladies Who Lunch," joining the rarified ranks of Elaine Stritch and Dorothy Loudon as the only women we've heard who have mastered it. Surely, it was for a show like this that the expression "triumphant return" was created. [Polly Bergen performs at Feinstein's through October 21.]

Prior to Polly Bergen's run at Feinstein's, the combustible jazz artist Dee Dee Bridgewater performed there for two weeks. She was ablaze performing a tribute to Louis Armstrong with her version of "Basin Street Blues," which included dual vocal imitations of Satchmo's trumpet playing and his raspy voice. In fact, it seemed this dynamic singer could do most anything she wanted, from a sensual "How Insensitive" (Jobim) to the rollicking "A Night in Tunisia" (Gillespie). Possessing a rangy, flexible voice, she's the kind of performer who transcends her genre, making fans of folks who would otherwise insist that they don't like jazz. Her only misstep was forcing every single person in a modest late night audience to get up and dance with her one-on-one during her final number. It's never a good idea to try to cajole audience members to become part of your act. A certain percentage of them are always going to resent it.

Hurricane Judi Connelli recently blew in to New York from Australia. The musical personification of an emotional whirlwind, she touched down at the FireBird Café with Australian opera diva Suzanne Johnston. Together, they performed a show that also bears the title of their duet CD, "Perfect Strangers." Whenever she sang with Johnstone, Connelli scaled down to tropical storm status, but with her rich, deep, and complex contralto, she still has more urgency and passion in her voice than any other female singer in cabaret. From her delicate, controlled rendering of "September Song" (Weill/Anderson) to her theatrically explosive "Terrific Band" (Billy Goldenberg/Marilyn & Alan Bergman), Connelli communicated a torrent of feelings. For her part, Johnston displayed a Broadway style belt and a puckish personality that belied one's expectations of her operatic background. As for the show, its loose construction didn't fully take advantage of what either lady had to offer. They sandbagged themselves with too many medleys that went on far too long. The medleys were like coming attractions for songs they never got to sing. Nonetheless, hearing Johnston for the first time was well worth an imperfect "Perfect Strangers," and any chance to catch Judi Connelli, whom her partner accurately referred to as "The Wonder from Down Under," is a pilgrimage that should be made by anyone who loves cabaret. [Connelli & Johnston perform next at the Oak Room on October 23 at 9 pm.]

Judy Barnett's current series of jazz brunch dates at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room mark a much-appreciated change of pace from her recent gigs at the noisy Wilson's. At the Oak Room, you can enjoy this champagne of swing singers sans noise. "Goody Goody." Oh yes, and she sings that song, too, and with an arrangement that sounds delightfully fresh. Barnett sings standards, never losing the underlying melody. Whether she percolates with "The Coffee Song" or takes a tender turn with "Every Time We Say Goodbye," she carries each tune with a seemingly organic sense of rhythm, delivering lyrics, scatting, and her own pure delight in the music with impeccable phrasing. [Judy Barnett performs at the Oak Room on the following Sundays: Oct. 22, Nov. 5 & 19, and Dec. 3 & 17. Room opens at 12:30 pm. Showtime is 2 pm.]

Portia Nelson, one of cabaret's elder songwriting stateswomen, was recently honored at Don't Tell Mama with several performances of a revue that featured her work. The show highlighted Nelson's understanding that "It's the Little Things" that make up "This Life." Lovingly directed by John Znidarsic, the revue had a dynamite cast that included Tom Andersen, Terri Klausner, and Deborah Tranelli, along with musical director/pianist Paul Katz. As a group, they sang harmonies as delicate as Nelson's refined sensibility. The show-stopping moment of the show belonged to Tom Andersen, who took a song that Portia often sang with poignancy herself, "As I Remember Him," and turned it into a lament so stunningly acted that you could hear a tear drop. The others were awesome in their own right. From Tranelli's passionate rendition of "Such a Man" to Terri Klausner's timeless reading of "Getting Over The Blues," the cast put the audience in a full Nelson.

Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich, cabaret's kinder songwriting stateswomen, are honoring the intelligence of their audience with the liberating exuberance of their witty and winsome compositions. In their Sunday night ASCAP series show at the FireBird Café, they displayed a buoyant creativity in comic numbers like "Last Song" and "Apathetic Man" (both from their musical revue "Adventures in Love"). In songs like these, Goldrich's catchy melodies combine with Heisler's comic lyrics to consistently snap, crackle, and pop with the familiar elements of our contemporary culture. Their ballads also have a light touch. "Music of Your Life," for instance, has a comic lyric about "the perfect pot roast," but make no mistake, this well-done song is fundamentally meaty. And how smart are Goldrich & Heisler? Smart enough to always include Scott Coulter—one of cabaret's sterling young vocalists—in their shows. Now that Goldrich has reached a greater degree of comfort and ease as a performer, the two songwriters together could easily command the stage singing anybody's music. We're happy, however, that it's their own music they're singing, because it is destined to become an important part of the American musical theatre's future. [Heisler & Goldrich return to the FireBird Café on Sunday Nov. 5 at 7 pm.]

So here's to The Ladies Who Sing. Everybody rise!

Around Town: Eric Michael Gillett's exceptional show "Hook, Line & Singer" returns to Judy's Chelsea, Mondays Oct. 23 & 30 and Sundays Nov. 5 & 12, all at 8:30 pm. Jason Graae is performing for one night only, Monday Oct. 23 at 9 pm, at the FireBird Café.

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