Kevin on Kabaret :: Cool tunes & plenty of laughs

by Kevin Scott Hall

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday May 4, 2011

Cabaret connoisseurs were treated to a wonderful show at the 26th annual Bistro Awards on April 26th. The winners, chosen by critics, offered a variety of styles and anecdotes to keep the festivities percolating.

One such treat was Phil Geoffrey Bond, who picked up the award for Best Series, "Sondheim Unplugged" at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. (Bond, an award-winning playwright, by the way, also books the room.) Originally slated to run for a couple of performances, the show has now run for fourteen sold-out, monthly shows, prompting Bond to quip, "We've now run five more performances than 'Anyone Can Whistle'!" (That classic starring Angela Lansbury flopped on Broadway in 1964.)

The show has been boosted by guests who have appeared in Sondheim Broadway shows (including Sarah Rice, the original Joanna in "Sweeney Todd," who performed at the Bistros) and by Bond's own meticulous research of his subject, which includes entertaining and perhaps never-before-heard anecdotes. "What I'm looking for are interesting backstage tidbits that pique curiosity or are just plain funny," Bond said.

Unplugged Sondheim

Bond has many memories of past shows. "Len Cariou singing ’You Must Meet My Wife’ with Victoria Mallory was really amazing," Bond told me. "Remember, Len was the original Fredrick in ’A Little Night Music,’ but Victoria was the original Anne, so here she played Desiree, which was fun. Len also did a phenomenal rendition of ’Sorry/Grateful’ accompanied by a story about Hal Prince."

Bond also recalled Donna McKechnie singing "In Buddy’s Eyes," Annie Golden performing "Unworthy of Your Love," and Marni Nixon and Sarah Rice doing "One More Kiss." (Nixon did the last "Follies" revival.) Also, he told of Kurt Peterson ("Follies") telling the audience about getting drunk in Elaine Stritch’s dressing room and stealing her showerhead from the Savoy Hotel-which he brought as a show and tell!

"To see the actual person we all grew up listening to right there before you is really thrilling," Bond said.

He went on to say, "There is no composer with the same magnetic attraction that Sondheim has. His music is stamped permanently on the brains of not only musical theatre freaks like me, but even on casual fans and tourists. This series is something that could only happen in New York City, and I think that’s part of what attracts audiences to it."

Catch the next installment of "Sondheim Unplugged" (reserve tix early!) at the Laurie Beechman Theatre on Monday, May 23rd, 7:00 pm.

Meet ’Helen on 86th Street’

Performing in cabaret clubs is a great place to be (even if not lucrative), but it’s always a thrill when one of our own branches out to find success in other entertainment mediums.

Such is the case with Robby Stamper, who played the grueling late night shift in piano bars like the Duplex, Rose’s Turn and Don’t Tell Mama for several years. Now, he has turned his attention to musical theater-a bit of a surprise given that he has
major pop, jazz and rock chops on the keys. Stamper won the New York Theatre Company’s NEO (New, Emerging and Outstanding) Award for excellence in composition.

He has written the music for "Helen on 86th Street" (book and lyrics by Nicole Kempskie), which finishes its world premiere run at Off-Broadway’s American Theatre of Actors on May 8th.

The musical is based on a New Yorker short story of the same name, written by Wendi Kaufman, which was published in the magazine in 1997.

The story, which follows the tribulations of 12-year-old Vita Calista, who deals with growing up in New York with a single mother and trying to land the lead role in the new school musical, "The Trojan Horse." The musical weaves in the story of Helen of Troy, of course, which gives the family musical a bit of a literary bent as well.

Boasting a talented cast of kids (especially Taylor Leigh Bera in the lead role and tiny firecracker Izzy Hanson-Johnston as Samantha the stage manager), Broadway’s Meredith Inglesby and the hilarious Kathryn Markey as the frazzled teacher/director, "Helen on 86th Street" would seem to have a future in the rough and tumble world of mounting new musicals. Check it out this week!

Visit ’Rosler’s Recording Booth’

For those who mourn the loss of the CD as an art form in this age of digital downloading of songs, I advise you to check out "Rosler’s Recording Booth" (Fingers Crossed Records).

The recording celebrates songwriter Don Rosler and features a bevy of vocal talents, including the singer Spottiswoode, actor Jeremy Sisto (who knew he could sing?), actress Isabel Keating (Tony-nominated for "The Boy from Oz"-playing Judy!), Terry Radigan and others, including Rosler himself. All are superbly chosen for each track (almost as if cast for a part), but I can’t get enough of John Margolis (heretofore unknown to me)-this guy’s plaintive rasp could make Star Jones cry! And Kathena Bryant of the Hippy Nuts brings such jaded regret to Rosler’s autobiographical "Where I’ve Been, What I’ve Done."

Like a carnival, though, there are attractions here for all: the jubilant "Give it a Whirl" (sung by Radigan) and "Doris From Rego Park," which Rosler sings himself. The latter, based on a real woman who called WFAN nightly to rail about her Mets, has already gotten attention and airplay.

Rosler has been plugging away at his career for some time, having collaborated with Bobby McFerrin on last year’s Grammy-nominated "VOCAbuLarieS" as well as penning a song for R&B vocal group RIFF and co-writing with Everett Bradley (a fave at Joe’s Pub), among many other projects.

The songs are often linked by recordios voiceovers, sometimes talk, sometimes unaccompanied singing. "I’ve always been fascinated by the voice-o-graph records that my grandfather and brothers made," Rosler told me. "Most recordios are missives from loners, and they give you a lot to read between the lines."

As for his own style, Rosler describes himself as being influenced by Loesser and Weill. "I don’t know how to write hooky things," he said. "I love the idea of a concept, actually. This is a journey, and you don’t know what to expect next and there are enough hidden elements that you can find new things with each listen."

In fact, Rosler hopes the CD paves the way for writing a musical. "I’ve always been slow and a late bloomer-as a kid, I had L and R on my sneakers," Rosler said. "But I’ve finally trusted myself to write my own stuff."

The cover art is brilliantly rendered by artist Patrick Bucklew (aka Mangina, downtown performance artist), with art direction by Krista Samoles.

"In the old days, opening up an album was a time to roll a joint," Rosler laughed. "Reading the essay and the liner notes was an experience."

"Then, people wouldn’t trust the technology and they would communicate these incredibly meaningful things. Today, we take technology for granted-we hear music at the supermarket, in the gym, everywhere-and it’s no longer sacred. We no longer appreciate the miracle of recorded sound."

The great thing about Rosler is that he finds the universal truth through the colorful details, like a finely etched painting. And he’s found a variety of voices for his canvas. Pick up "Rosler’s Recording Booth" for art on many levels . . .

DJ Dan Fortune’s cool tunes

As the evenings get hotter, come inside and cool down with some cool tunes at Time Out New York Lounge (340 W. 50th, NOT 350 W. 50th) for the unique blends from DJ Dan Fortune, who presents his "Lush & Lively Happy Hour is every Friday from 6-9 pm.

Focusing mainly on the ’50s-’70s lounge-style pop and jazz (do the pony!), I am never less than astonished by the rare finds and off-the-wall covers that he plays. And for all you cabaret singers, a great place to unwind with a cheap drink ($4 sangria, for example) and get some song ideas!

And now...

Kev’s Faves: Giovanni Vitacolonna of POZ Magazine (and a fine singer in his own right) produces "Love Out Loud VI" for AIDS Walk New York at Prohibition, 503 Columbus Avenue (84th), on Wednesday, April 11th. Gio has assembled an amazing cast of over a dozen stars of TV soaps and Broadway, and the whole thing is hosted by nationally known out comic Adam Sank. $42.50 via PayPal or $50 at the door. Go to http://www.love-out-loud.com/events.html for more details . . . Tony winner (and likely nominee again this month) Laura Benanti graces the stage of Feinstein’s at the Regency on May 22nd . . . the incredible Marilyn Maye is back at the same club for a 2-week run starting on May 24th. The fiery 82-year-old could teach the Britneys and Mileys and Gagas of the world a thing about sex appeal and singing . . .

Another 82-year-old, Ray Jessel, who wowed television audiences ("The Carol Burnett Show" and "The Love Boat", among many others) before jumping into cabaret at age 72, comes to Don’t Tell Mama on May 18th and 25th . . . and I’m eager to see Ryan O’Connor’s "Eats His Feelings" at the Laurie Beechman Theatre, Mondays through the 23rd at the Laurie Beechman Theatre. The comic actor promises a different Tony-nominated guest each week!

And don’t forget the MAC Awards-the best of the best in cabaret-at B.B. King’s on Tuesday, May 10th!

If that’s not enough for you, there is plenty more. Check those websites! In the meantime . . . hope to see you over cocktails at the clubs!

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