Cabaret Reviews by Stephen Hanks
Even though for me cabaret reviewing is a labor of love and not one for profit (at least for now), occasionally there can be a hidden perk in being afforded the critic's comp, i.e., the ability to enjoy a special occasion more ostentatiously even though you're on a budget. For example, last September my wife and I were able to celebrate our anniversary night with a cabaret show doubleheader at 54 Below, first with the amazing Ann Hampton Callaway's Double BroadwayWorld Award-Winning (and MAC-nominated) Streisand Songbook, and later with the Manhattan Transfer's awesome Janis Siegel. Of course, one is not always going to luck out and catch a great singer performing on a big personal day, let alone two on the same night. But the cabaret gods must be smiling on this reviewer because this past Saturday evening my wife and I celebrated her birthday with an intimate dinner in between a couple of totally engaging shows from two lovely ladies of cabaret; the beautiful Jillian Laurain (above left) paying homage to classic Broadway show tunes at the Metropolitan Room, and the beguiling Stacy Sullivan (above right) in her MAC and BroadwayWorld.com Award-nominated tribute to Peggy Lee, "It's a Good Day," at the Cafe Carlyle. For me and the Birthday Girl, it was definitely a good night.
Two years ago, Jillian Laurain's sublime Barbra Streisand tribute show at the Laurie Beechman would have been the first of three Streisand extravaganzas in the past two years to be MAC-nomination caliber (along with Callaway's and Tanya Moberly's this year) had Laurain run more than two shows. Her new one-shot (so far anyway), My Broadway: 100 Years of the Great White Way, featured a set of songs right in the former opera singer's still-powerful vocal wheelhouse. As a vocal technician herself (she works with students in a studio in her Manhattan apartment), Laurain well knows how to get the most out of her instrument. Her numbers were infused with excellent arrangements she handed off to Musical Director (and freshly-minted Bistro Award Winner for "Ongoing Musical Excellence") Barry Levitt (with Laurain below), who is simpatico with Laurain's musicality and temperament the way a veteran catcher is with a talented but fragile pitcher. Levitt didn't help Laurain throw the cabaret equivalent of a no-hitter, but he guided her into pitching a tantalizing complete-game musical victory that wowed the Metropolitan Room audience from the opening notes.
To the strains of "One" from A Chorus Line, the lovely Laurain entered wearing a shimmering black sequence-laden jacket over the same style dress and then managed to give Stephen Sondheim's "Broadway Baby," enough pizzazz that it didn't feel like a pedestrian opener. From that point on, Laurain and Levitt (along with Tom Hubbard on bass, Ed Ornowski on drums and Rob Thomas on violin) offered a chronological mini-history of the Broadway Musical, choosing numbers that were terrific fits for Laurain's flowery mezzo-soprano. After another pleasant warm-up-the-room song with "Where's That Rainbow" (from the 1926 Rodgers & Hart show Peggy Ann), Laurain attained her first of many "bravas!" of the night with a stirring rendition of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man of Mine" from Show Boat (Thomas' violin was a nice touch in this arrangement) and a soaringly operatic "My Man's Gone Now," from Porgy & Bess. "I've always wanted to conduct you in an opera," the Maestro Levitt told his Diva Laurain. "Tonight may be the night." Quicker than you can say "Johnny One Note," Laurain was singing the song from 1937s Babes in Arms as an opera aria. On "Speak Low" from Kurt Weill's 1944 One Touch of Venus, she again displayed her nightingale-like sound that has a soothing quality with just enough vibrato to keep you paying attention. (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)