Kevin On Kabaret - Have Faith
Two-time Tony nominee Mary Testa celebrates the release of her new CD, "Have Faith" (Ghostlight Records), with four shows at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, January 4, 5, 11, and 12. On the show and recording, she collaborates with long-time musical director Michael Starobin.
I was eager to chat with Testa, who has been in some of the most celebrated musicals of all time-"Chicago," "Guys and Dolls," "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," and, most recently, "Wicked"-and was Tony-nominated for "On the Town" and "42nd Street."
For all of that, though, Testa claims her favorite role was the one written for her by Michael John LaChiusa in a piece he wrote for her, "Queen of the Mist." "It was an extraordinary role and piece, and it was my first lead," she said.
"I suppose if I were an ingénue, I'd have had a shelf life," the character actress says. "When I was in my twenties, I was going up against women in their forties and never getting the part. I knew if I stuck it out, I'd have my most productive years in my forties, and that pretty much happened."
A little voice
I expressed my surprise at the nature of the CD, which explores faith and doubt from diverse angles, and includes songs by Alanis Morissette, Prince, Annie Lennox, The Beach Boys, and Leonard Cohen, as well as songs from theater composers with whom she has had a long association, William Finn and LaChiusa.
Although her career began when she left college in Rhode Island to move to New York in 1976 to work with Finn, she never intended to have a career in musical theater. "My tastes are more like what is on the album," Testa told me. "It's just not what I usually do in my professional life." Furthermore, she claims Starobin, a Broadway orchestrator and arranger with whom she has worked since 1982, is musically on the same page as she.
"This album started as a live show and a friend, Catherine Rush, saw it and said it would make a great recording," Testa said. "Well, there was no way we could afford that, but then she said she would do it! That was her gift to us, and it allowed us to do whatever we wanted to do for the recording."
She went on to say, "I'm not interested in doing a song that has been interpreted by a thousand people. Times are tough, and with this recording, we are questioning and examining how to make our way through this world."
As to how the idea for "Have Faith" began, Testa said, "I have always had faith. I was raised Catholic and went to Catholic schools, but I have never really practiced it; I saw the hypocrisy from an early age. But I've always felt the need to have a positive guiding force to pray to, to connect to."
"I was in a relationship a few years ago, and when we were having difficult times, a little voice would say 'have faith,' and then I kept seeing that phrase a lot in my everyday life," she explained. "This album is the journey of what Michael and I put together."
Testa is currently without a stage show, having just finished her run in "Wicked." She loves the idea of touring with the CD, but there is no game plan. "We're just artists!" she laughed. "We don't have all our ducks in a row, but more shows to support the album would be wonderful!" In addition to the material on the album, she will be adding a few new songs they've been working on as well.
Speaking of this latest departure from her Broadway career, Testa remarked, "Everybody thinks they know what you do best. You have to constantly change it up and surprise people."
Two more chances to catch Testa, Starobin, and company, at the Laurie Beechman, January 11 and 12 at 7:00 p.m. I'll be there, for sure. . .
Happy 80th for Barbara
Another former Catholic-and in fact a former nun-is the delightful Barbara Malley. I was very impressed with her smart, funny, and touching show "Out of Order" a couple years back, which recounted her years as a nun back in the early '60s.
Now, Barbara is back and continuing to celebrate her big 80th birthday by bringing back her show "Eat! Drink! Be Merry!", which she originally did as a benefit for Cabaret Cares on her actual birthday back in October.
Malley has had quite a life. After her years in the convent, she went on to become a special ed teacher and a psychologist, a practice she gave up only last year. She also makes money these days doing television and print commercials.
Her life changed again a few years ago when she signed up for a week-long cabaret workshop with Andrea Marcovicci at the Performing Arts Center in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
"My grandfather sang in vaudeville and so many times I wanted to perform, but never got around to it," Malley said. "Then I started taking singing and acting classes in the city and met Barry Kleinbort. He told me about the workshop in Steamboat Springs. There were ten of us and we were in classes for seven and a half hours per day. We really bonded."
Of course, performers over seventy and even eighty are no strangers to the cabaret circuit. I wondered aloud why that was.
"I have no idea," Malley told me. "But it's so exciting, and I'm glad I didn't do it when I was young. It's such a hard life, and you can be doing it twenty years and turn around and realize you are in the same place."
She went on. "I have no inhibitions now. The first two plays I tried out for, I got the part."
For the new show, Malley has employed the services of musical director Ricky Ritzel and director Jay Rogers, two of the most celebrated names in cabaret-and known to be two of the funniest. "We laugh so hard during rehearsal," she said. "Once, I forgot the words and just came up with two other words that rhymed and Jay was rolling on the floor."
Malley admits that she still has family that is very Catholic and Republican, and liable to be shocked by a few things she does on the cabaret stage. "But my nieces and nephews think I'm so cool and want to be like me when I get older," she said. "And now I'm Unitarian, and they aren't shocked by anything!"
To my surprise, outside of her singing and past careers, Malley describes her self as "very outdoorsy." She remembers a trip through the western Canadian wilderness some years back that she made with a man who was her partner. "We had to canoe seven hours just to reach an island. We camped every day from April until October," she recalled.
Malley has also backpacked in Ireland, Nova Scotia, and various places in the U.S. On her sixty-sixth birthday, she rode one hundred miles on her bike. "Canoeing, swimming, and biking, those are my favorites," she said. "My mother made it to ninety-three. My goal is to get to ninety-five."
Birthday or not, I can't think of a better way to celebrate life than with a Barbara Malley show. Catch "Eat! Drink! Be Merry!" on January 25th at Don't Tell Mama, where her guest will be MAC-winning songwriter Lois Morton. I'll be there. . . .
A fabulous addition to your CD collection would be the debut recording by Stearns Matthews, "Spark." I've had some criticism of Matthews in the past, not because of his talent but because I felt he hadn't quite grown into the performer he was meant to be and was doing a lot of experimentation, some of which didn't always hit the mark. For this recording, he did everything right.
His astonishing tenor vocals capture the hopeful longing of boyhood along with the assured artistry of manhood. He is beautifully, achingly present in every line. There isn't a bad cut, but my favorites would have to be "Spark of Creation," "Right as the Rain," "My Romance," and the magnificent "Steer" by Missy Higgins (a song I hadn't known previously). Kudos to musical director Christopher Denny for his splendid arrangements, and producer Paul Rolnick for creating a flawless listening experience. "Spark" is a keeper and a triumph for all involved.
And now, Kev's faves:
The outrageous Bridget Everett is back with her show "Rock Bottom" for several nights at Joe's Pub-January 6, 8, 9, 13, 14, 16, 29, and 30. Be warned, not for the faint of heart. But for the rest of us, a rollicking good time . . . Natalie Douglas is back at Birdland on the 18th and 25th . . . Long Island born and raised Pamela Lewis (aka Champagne Pam) brings her new show celebrating Billy Joel to the Metropolitan Room on the 17th and 18th. A match made in heaven! . . . And Marissa Mulder brings her new show "Soul Sessions" to the same room (beginning a monthly residency) on the 30th. This young lady is aiming for the stratosphere. Her show "Living Standards" from last year was probably one of the best ten shows I've ever seen. Let's see if she can top it (I'm betting she can) . . . and Thomas Honeck returns to the Duplex (as headliner, not booking manager) on the 22nd with his great show "Dancing With Death."
Another great year ahead of us in the clubs. Let's fill our wintry nights with music and laughter. Until next month . . . I'll see you over cocktails.