The Return of New York City Cabaret . . .
By Ron Fassler . . .
When Seth Sikes took the stage on June 3 at The Green Room 42, the first words he sang were “So long sad time, so long bad time,” the opening lines of the nearly one-hundred-year-old “Happy Days Are Here Again.” That the audience spontaneously burst into applause was a given. This, after all, was a return to what was once New York City’s energetic cabaret world. Shut down for nearly fifteen months like most everything else of cultural impact, the collective sigh heard in the crowd was palpable. Though Sikes mentioned early on that he didn’t want to dwell on the past, it was ironic that almost all the songs he sang were copywritten before the outbreak of World War II. In fact, the last time he’d performed live was New Year’s Eve 2019 in a show dedicated to songs of the Roaring Twenties. Stuck in the past is not necessarily a bad place to be when your guide is someone with as firm a handle on the Great American Songbook as Seth Sikes.
Hailing from Paris, Texas, Sikes hasn’t been a cabaret singer for very long. Trained as an actor, sporadic employment was all he could find when he started with steadier work coming as an assistant director both on and off Broadway. But in 2014, almost as a lark, he took his love for Judy Garland to the stage. As he told the New York Times, “It was really supposed to be a one-night only stunt for all my friends in the theatre.” Following the positive feedback, not only from his friends but later from critics, he chose to push further and test whether it was a permanent path forward. And thanks to parody videos on YouTube of some of Garland’s greatest hits (mainly shot during the pandemic), he’s become a bit of a sensation, which is where I was first introduced to him.
Backed by a top-notch seven-member band, Sikes debut at The Green Room 42 rocked its intimate space with a tenor voice of skilled intonation, articulation and pitch. He belts with the best of them and even with much of his material recognized as women’s songs, he is able to tread a fine line in keeping things from distorting into caricature (not easy when you’re channeling a bit of Barbra and Judy). He wisely held histrionics to a minimum, careful to include songs not closely identified by overly familiar renditions. He also kept things lively by way of parody lyrics that would sneak up on you, satisfying fans who know him for his clever wordplay.
Natural charm is an essential commodity to a cabaret performer. With Sikes, it’s interesting that even after significant time onstage in front of audiences he retains an almost amateur-like presence. That’s not meant as pejorative. It’s either purposeful restraint or he’s just not the smoothest guy. He lacks the slickness that can be off putting in a singers’ energy and delivery, possessing an innocence that can’t be faked. It feels as if he’s making things up for the first time, even going so far as to appear unrehearsed (which is a big difference from under rehearsed). Even his prepared jokes and patter give the appearance of a relaxed freshness.
Special attention must be paid to the musical direction and piano playing of Matt Aument. He’s also responsible for the excellent arrangements throughout the set. It’s a pleasure to single out Alphonso Horne on the trumpet (yes, Horne!), Michael Breaux on reeds (he plays a mean clarinet), Vince Giordano on bass, Justin Rothenberg on banjo (wish there was more solos for him), Mike Lunoe on drums and Rachel Handman on violin. Sikes smartly gives them each a chance to shine on 1917’s Dixieland swing “Tiger Rag,” otherwise known as “Hold That Tiger.”
At the show’s end, Sikes sang Irving Berlin’s “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” (he should do an entire Berlin show, as the composer’s catalogue meshes perfectly with his sensibilities). Peppering the song with highlights from what he’d performed throughout the evening offered proof that happiness is infectious and to be shared by the guy in the spotlight who isn’t hogging it all for himself. The applause felt as much for us as it was for him; positive energy Seth Sikes is gladly willing to share.
Seth Sikes’ “Runnin’ Wild,” was performed June 3, 2021 at The Green Room 42, located inside Hotel Yotel at 570 Tenth Avenue, 4th floor, New York, NY 10036. For information on future shows, go to https://thegreenroom42.venuetix.com.