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Then and Now—Transcending the Past

Some singers have the power to do more than just move us with their voices. As they grow and change over the years, they offer an artistic road map of how to mature with grace and style and transcend the past without rejecting it or re-evaluating it from an ironic distance.

Julie Wilson, who celebrated her 75th birthday almost two years ago at the cabaret convention at Town Hall, has virtually written the book on how to outgrow all role playing and move to ever higher artistic ground without sacrificing her essential, consummate artistry and a core emotional quality.

Ms. Wilson, who is appearing at the Oak Room at The Algonquin through April 21 with gifted musical director-arranger Mark Hummel, is offering a show that pays homage to Dorothy Fields and Amanda McBroom in song. Her demanding set includes suites of songs devoted to each songwriter without a throughline or much explanation. At no point does she compare them or explain why she chose them for this latest outing. Such is the frivolity, pastiche, or emotional depth of each song that they speak for themselves; at times, it's a rollercoaster journey. For instance, the trenchant story songs of McBroom like "Crimes of the Heart," about an older lady falling for a young stud, or "Wheels," about a homeless lady, are balanced deftly with Fields' breezier, more optimistic romps like "On the Sunnyside of the Street" or "A Fine Romance." Only a pro like Julie Wilson could balance this with such flair.

In her quivering, lived-in voice and her trademark dramatic gestures, this cabaret legend has few peers. Why is this so? Well, kids, it's all done with a minimum of artifice. Julie Wilson doesn't really "act" songs so much as she locates their emotional essence, infuses them with her understanding of life, and applies her formidable interpretive technique, delivering each song in long, aching phrases that rivet. Regardless of the lyric line or the complexities of the material, this is a cabaret artist who takes the long view and accepts the fact that yearning and the life force are practically one and the same. Save your money on expensive courses and directors; go see Julie Wilson if you're serious about a career in cabaret.

One of the most missed acts in cabaret is the campy vocal trio Gotham. Together for 18 years (most of which was sold out), they broke up several years ago. Michael Pace was a vital part of that group, and he's returned as a soloist with recent shows at the FireBird Café in what may be the happiest return to cabaret in ages. From his bouncy opener, "Singin' In the Rain," which recalled Gene Kelly, to a bravura rhythm medley, to a poignant "People Will Say We're In Love," all fused with an hour of madcap barbs, soft shoe, and side-splitting humor that had the room screaming with laughter, Pace proved himself a winner on every level. On retro-classics like "Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails" and "Let's Face the Music and Dance," Pace's vaudevillian style totally engaged the room.

A terrific crooner, he has a confident, legit lyric baritone that is very effective. But, it is his hijinks with the audience that makes the hour fly. Michael Pace is never self-indulgent or boring. He's refreshingly good as a tour de force performer who entertains, rather than just emotes in his key light. His show is as good a definition of what cabaret is about as anything I've seen in a long time. He's there Thursdays, April 12, 19, and 26, at 9 pm. Go!

Now to someone just getting his feet wet in cabaret. Handsome newcomer Michael Ferreri made an impressive debut recently with two sold out shows at the FireBird Café. With striking charisma, charming stage presence, and a soft baritone voice, he is clearly a promising talent. In his show, "Sweet Dreams," with musical director Christopher Marlowe and director Scott Barnes, he quickly won the room over in spades. His well-chosen songs were appropriate for his winning persona, and played off his strengths. And, if audience response is any indication, he's off to a grand start.

Opening with David Friedman's buoyant anthem, "Listen To My Heart," and then Lloyd Webber's "Unexpected Song" (from "Song And Dance"), I wondered if he tackled too much at the top. To his credit, Ferreri shined on the show tunes as well as the more intimate numbers, like John Bucchino's wistful story song, "Sweet Dreams" (the title of his debut CD). Seemingly most comfortable with tales of the heart, I'd like to hear more of this in future shows. He was also effective on some theatre songs like Sondheim's "Move On" (from "Sunday in the Park with George") and the Lerner/Lane mainstay, "Hurry It's Lovely Up Here" (from "On A Clear Day You Can See Forever"), which were highlights in this hour.

A local piano room favorite, Ferreri is most at home on familiar territory like the show tunes you're very likely to hear in piano bars. As he grows in cabaret and starts to dig deeper, I think his shows will further explore his sensitive and whimsical sides, which are yet to be fully tapped in depth. (He had a lot of fun with Amanda McBroom's ditty, "Everybody Wants To Be Sondheim.")

For a newcomer, he's one of the most engaging performers I've seen in a while. The evening's highlight came with a heartfelt reading of Bucchino's beauty, "A Dream." To many, that's what Michael Ferreri is. His fan base is rabid and growing and he's back by popular demand on April 28, at 9 pm.

Judy and Liza—together again? That's right. It had to happen. The mother-daughter team is eerily reunited these days on Saturdays, at 11 pm, at Don't Tell Mama in the persons of Tommy Femia as Judy and Christine Pedi as Liza. Femia packs them in every time he has a show. And Christine Pedi is playing to full houses in "Forbidden Broadway" where she does a bevy of celebrity spoofs to perfection. Together they are lethal and they could take this show on the road. It's that good.

As usual, Femia pulls out all the stops possible as Judy and brings the house down belting out a bevy of Garland's throat-scorching showstoppers like "Swanee" and an awesome "What Now My Love." Pedi also stops every show she's in, and she tears the roof down here. Her on-target, no-holds-barred, campy impression of Liza is as eerie as it is brilliant. It may be "over the top," yet Pedi remains respectful and tasteful. Hearing her on "City Lights" (from "The Act") and a tender "A Quiet Thing" (from "Flora, The Red Menace") was like watching the real Minnelli.

Their repartee, true-to-life jokes, and vocal duets were nothing less than magical and this duo couldn't be better. I don't dare spoil the rest by giving more away. Suffice it to say that this Judy and Liza are—in sync! "Judy and Liza Live!" runs Saturdays, April 21 and 28, at 11 pm.

AROUND TOWN: Hurry! On the heels of the success of "The Broadway Musicals of 1943," my colleague Scott Siegel presents "The Broadway Musicals of 1957," celebrating the musicals of that year, including "West Side Story," "The Music Man," "New Girl in Town," "Jamaica," and "Shinbone Alley" at Town Hall on Monday, April 16, at 8 pm. This powerhouse evening features performances by Eric Michael Gillett, Alix Korey, Adriane Lenox, and special guest Jay Rogers. With D. Jay Bradley serving as musical director, the evening, directed by Gillett, is also created, written, and hosted by Scott Siegel. There are still tickets left. Call (212) 840-2824 or (212) 307-4100.

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