By Stephen Hanks
Cabaret shows paying tribute to famous or iconic vocalists can range from female impersonators who may be superb singers delivering every Garland or Channing or Streisand phrase as if it were scripture, to performers who live on The Edge of the arrangement envelope (think Barb Jungr doing her great Bob Dylan show). Even for those contemporary cabaret singers in the vast middle, the tribute show can be a delicate tightrope walk without a net to stop the fall. If you honor the songs too religiously, you can be called an impressionist or impersonator. If you re-interpret the songs even the slightest bit, some audience members who may also be fans of the icon will be disappointed not hearing the familiar vocal style and arrangements.
During her recent two-night run at the Metropolitan Room (July 11, 12), Los Angeles-based nightclub singer and actress Robyn Spangler gingerly walked the tightrope and made it to the other side intact. Her show "Why I Love Linda Ronstadt"-which earned her a 2011 BroadwayWorld.com honor as L.A.'s "Best Female Cabaret Artist"-was an honest and heartfelt homage to her singing heroine. Although it was a bit too TMI to offer early on that she "won't be doing an impression or impersonation" (it should be left to the audience and reviewers to determine that), her Ronstadt show hit almost all the right tribute notes, with solid arrangements from her Musical Director/Pianist Todd Schroeder (who also provided nifty backup vocals) that were reverential without being complete replications.
At the outset, though, it wasn't so easy to fall in love. While the beautiful Spangler sparkled on stage with her blonde hair and black cocktail dress, and clearly exuded a warm, confident stage presence, her first two upbeat numbers-"Heat Wave" and Buddy Holly's "It's So Easy"-seemed a tad off-tempo and had the feel of audience warm-ups. But after telling of how her college jock boyfriend turned out to be a player in more ways than one, Spangler segued into a sad but sultry "Hurt So Bad," featuring Schroeder's beautifully languid arrangement, and the show went smoothly from that point on, as if it was sailing along a Blue Bayou.
Spangler was very nice on "Tumbling Dice" (Mick Jagger/Keith Richards), wonderfully haunting on both Warren Zevon's "Hasten Down the Wind" and the Eagles' "Desperado" (which featured terrific bass work by Steve Doyle), deliciously jazzy on "Hummin' to Myself" (from the 2004 album of the same name), and just sensually Spanish enough on "Te Quiero Dijiste" (from Ronstadt's 1992 album "Frenesi"). Robyn even reached back into her opera training past to pull off a charming version of "Poor Wondering One" from Gilbert & Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance, which Ronstadt appeared in on stage and on film.
On two up-tempo songs from the 1974 album "Heart Like a Wheel"-the Everly Brothers' "When Will I Be Loved" (the song Spangler says made her a Ronstadt fan) and Clint Ballard's "You're No Good"-Spangler was supported with Schroeder's super piano riffs. But Linda Ronstadt has not been called the "Queen of the Rock Ballad" for nothing, and it's on those numbers where Spangler's nightclub/lounge singing chops really shone through. She was beautifully retro, torchy, and Ronstadt-esque on the Nelson Riddle-arrangement medley of "What's New," "Lush Life," and "For Sentimental Reasons." For Neil Young's "After the Gold Rush" from the Ronstadt, Dolly Parton, and Emmylou Harris "Trio II" album, she brought up the always marvelous Lorinda Lisitza and Spangler's LA friend, singer Caroline Stainsby (photo above), and the threesome delivered glorious harmonies. Later, 2012 MAC Award-winner for "Best Male Vocalist" Craig Pomranz joined Spangler for a charming duet on "All My Life," from the 1989 album "Cry Like a Rainstorm." (Please click on Page 2 to continue.)