By Martha Wade Steketee
I am a fan of the divas that inspire the passionate fandom Seth Sikes revealed in his June 24 cabaret show. I’ve wondered, as I’ve read reviews of his tribute show appearances over the past few years, whether his performance style would land as gushing fan boy, assiduous fan, or somewhere in between. It’s a tricky thing to draw explicitly from the performances of others, to find that delicate balance between homage and unique performance, hopefully by-passing lip synching and karaoke.
My experience of this Sikes show, that draws from the performance legacies of others, is that his style is that of an energetic acolyte, singing in his own voice and a consistently cheery attitude these legacy story-song ballads of love and loss and redemption made famous by others. He reveals love for the source material and a young man’s upbeat rhythm in delivery, with limited adaptation to a personal style or a unique point of view on the source material. We’re observing sweet homage to tunes and arrangements. We do not experience a singer engaging with this rich material anew.
Sikes introduces himself and his new evening creation as an opportunity to “just go out there and sing,” drawing from his past tribute shows to Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Bernadette Peters, and Liza Minnelli, that he has knit together, by theme, using fictionalized letters to his mother. These letters announce the “acts” and themes of the set list – e.g. giddy love, painful breakup, vowing to never love again. The hardworking musicians led by Paul Staroba as musical director include more brass than strings in marvelous respect for the original recordings. And while the whole enterprise has the atmosphere of a high intensity party, the lack of variety in tone (and occasional flat final notes) breaks the mood of individual tunes.
From the Gypsy overture – just the initial brassy “ba, bah, bah, BAH” – through much of Garlands Carnegie Hall set list, to Garland and Streisand and Minnelli movie highlights and the finale bouncy-then-resonant “After You’ve Gone” (just as Garland delivered it), Sikes provides a pleasant sing-along with driving replica brassy arrangements. The rhythm is relentlessly bouncy and the smile charmingly broad. Whatever the story of any song, Sikes generally offers in this show a similar upbeat sensibility.
Sikes clearly loves his divas and has spent much time with their recordings. I found I could anticipate many tonal fluctuations, particular quirky key changes, even hand movements (for performances evoked from film and television). Again, I know the source material. The 1961 Garland at Carnegie Hall recording. Minnelli in Cabaret on film. Streisand in the Funny Girl film finale, Peters in Mack & Mabel are drawn from explicitly and specifically, with arrangements, gestures, and vocal pauses closely mirroring the originals. Sikes demonstrates love for his source material (unlike others who have raided the Garland repertoire and performance legacy for material in recent years), but he doesn’t always convey a feeling for it. Rather than delivering a take on the material that moves us, he charmingly evokes the original performances, eliciting smiles of recognition rather than contemporary emotional response.
My favorite moment of the concert was the sparest – just as Judy Garland and her musical director Mort Lindsey crafted the arrangement and performed it at Carnegie Hall in 1961. Noel Coward’s “If Love Were All” was streamlined reflection and the purest opportunity to tell us a story, with only music director Paul Staroba at piano. “I believe that since my life began / The most I’ve had is just a talent to amuse,” the character in the lyrics reflects as someone who has lived and lost and aspires to love again. The unencumbered and glorious original constellation of singer-storyteller and pianist and fabulous tune, offers a blank canvas for any singer to create some art. Sikes begins to find a performance voice here. More of this please.
Photos: Mitch Zachary
Seth Sikes Sings Judy, Liza, Barbra, Etc. Saturday June 24 9:30 pm. Feinstein’s 54 Below (254 W 54th St. Cellar). https://54below.com/events/seth-sikes-sings-judy-garland-etc-pride-week/ Upcoming shows in Provincetown July 18 (Garland) and August 7 (Minnelli) at the Crown & Anchor (247 Commercial St., Provincetown, MA). https://onlyatthecrown.com/artist/78-seth-sikes