Entertainment » Music

Kevin on Kabaret :: Giving Thanks

by Kevin Scott Hall
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Sunday Nov 4, 2012

"In a city of strangers, I've got a family of friends. No matter what rocks and brambles fill the way, I know that they will stay in the end . . . Grateful, grateful, truly grateful I am. Grateful, grateful, truly blessed and duly grateful." -- John Bucchino

This month, we New Yorkers may be even more mindful of giving thanks. Having endured another calamity, we are rising yet again and will emerge even stronger. One ingredient of that healing is music, and nowhere is that healing more evident than in the intimacy of a cabaret room, just one of the many little jewels of Manhattan. It's time to, well, come in from the rain and celebrate who we are and what we still have . . .

Beauty and La Biche

Between the two of them, Bette Sussman and Elaine Caswell have worked alongside some of the biggest icons in the music business: Bette Midler, Cher, Cyndi Lauper, Dolly Parton, Celine Dion, Darlene Love, Ronnie Spector, Mick Jagger, Paul Shaffer . . . you get the picture. Emmy-winner Sussman is a musical director, composer, and singer and Caswell is known for her powerhouse vocals.

The two had been working together in sessions with different bands, recordings and local television shows. About fifteen years ago, they formed the band The Bev Leslies. However, they eventually decided they wanted to do something together that could take them to the next phase. "Some place with tablecloths," Caswell quipped.

And so it came to be. The two return to ritzy Feinstein’s at Loews Regency (no paper napkins there!) for one more date this year on Sunday, Nov. 11, with their show "Beauty and La Biche."

"We’ve worked with so many people, we wanted to make our own party," Caswell said.

"We do more rock ’n’ roll and R&B, and this show allows us to add elements of comedy as well," Sussman explained. "We’re fairly archaeological and find these great gems that have been lost and forgotten."

"Our focus has not been on the Great American Songbook," Caswell agreed. "We even cuss a little bit." Sussman laughed about their first appearance at Feinstein’s when they launched into David Bowie’s "Beauty and the Beast" and owner Michael Feinstein called them during the show to complain.

As to who is the Beauty and who is La Biche, Sussman said, "We are all as one and one is all; it’s a Yin and Yang thing."

In past shows, Spector, Love and Shaffer have popped in as surprise guests, so you never know what will happen. But don’t expect too much dish about their famous employers. "We have too much respect for the people we work for," Sussman said. "We tell a few tidbits, but we’re most serious about making kick-ass music."

I commented that their high-octane act sounded like a gay man’s paradise. "We’ve been told that!" Caswell shouted. In fact, composer Marc Shaiman recently said, "The most musical and entertaining show you could ever hope to attend. They sing and play from the gut and look good doing it!"

They will be joined onstage by a small band, and you can expect anything from Johnny Mathis to Lady Gaga. "We are not afraid," Sussman insisted.

Indeed. I can’t wait to catch this hot duo at Feinstein’s on the 11th . . . .

Honest communication

Jonathan Whitton returns with a new cabaret offering, "The Free Residency," at Don’t Tell Mama on Nov. 5 and 27. And free it is, no cover charge! (A show on Dec. 3 has been added, with a mere $8 cover.)

This exciting performer won both the MAC and Bistro awards for his debut in 2008. Since then, he has been in a number of theater projects here and around the country, including the one-man shows "The Disney Diaries," "The Santa Land Diaries" (about David Sedaris, and returning upstate in December), and a work-in-progress, "Even for One Night: The Life, Music and Lyrics of Michael Callen."

"I kind of fell into cabaret back then, and it spoke to me," Whitton told me. "But now I’ve done so many one-man-shows, I joke that I no longer know how to speak to another person on stage."

As for the new show, performed mostly with guitar and a couple songs on piano with his collaborator Aaron Jones, Whitton describes it as "communication with an honest, pure sense of it all, without any artifice; it’s free and loose." He went on to say, "You know, leaning against the piano and saying, ’Here’s a song by Cole Porter’ really isn’t me." The show will feature songs by the likes of Callen, Kate McGarrigle, Nina Simone, and John Vanderslice, among others.

The South Carolina native has been pursuing his dream in New York for about ten years now, and the show explores the theme of the journey home. "I’m a wanderer by trade, I don’t stay put," he said. "So how do you define what home is? It’s about our memories, our dreams."

Reflecting on the title, Whitton said, "The residency is at Don’t Tell Mama, which is like a home. And it’s free so people will come see the show, but also I’m interested in what it means to be free. Are we free because we are orphans?"

Whitton is of that younger generation of performers where being out is not that big of a deal. "When I take my shows on the road, I don’t change them," he said. "I don’t think we should worry about it-otherwise people might think there’s something wrong with it."

After a pause, he said, "Maybe being out has kept me from some things, but the stuff that I have done, I’m very proud of."

As he should be. Catch Jonathan Whitton’s new show and find details of upcoming projects at www.jonwhitton.com. Let me tell you, Whitton has charisma, looks and talent. He’s a keeper whose star, I hope, is just beginning to rise. . . .

Droll storyteller

One of the best shows of the year gave us a return to the cabaret stage by multi-award-winning performer Lennie Watts, in "Bloody, Bloody Lennie Watts." Watts is a smart and droll storyteller, and he can raise the roof with that soulful, fearless voice of his. He offers an eclectic mix ranging from Freddie Mercury to Lionel Richie, and his heavy-metal take on "My Favorite Things" is deliciously demonic.

This time, he’s at The Duplex on Monday, Nov. 26. Sure to sell out, so reserve ASAP . . . .

Ken’s Faves

Powerhouse blues belter Baby Jane Dexter is having a banner year. She returns to the Metropolitan Room with her second show of the year, Nov. 16, 17, 23 and 24 . . . I named Hechter Ubarry as one of my favorite acts of 2011, and he returns with his poignant show "Call Me Papo," Nov. 17 and 30 at the Laurie Beechman Theatre . . . Tony-winner Leslie Uggams graces 54 Below, Nov. 13-17 . . .

And Mark Nadler’s "I’m a Stranger Here Myself" is simply one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen. Catch it Sunday afternoons at 54 Below, Nov. 4 and 11 . . . Shaynee Rainbolt and octogenarian jazz pianist legend Donn Trenner have two shows at The Iridium on Nov. 6, swinging the vote on election night. They recently did four shows at The Metropolitan Room and were outstanding.

That’s just a small sampling of what’s in store in November. I’ll be back next month. Until then . . . I’ll see you over cocktails.

Kevin Scott Hall is the author of Off the Charts! (2010, iUniverse) and the memoir, A Quarter Inch from My Heart (2014, Wisdom Moon).


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