by Martha Wade Steketee
Down the steep stairs hard by Roundabout’s Studio 54 into “Feinstein’s slash 54 Below” as our star of the evening refers to the venue, I joined a stalwart and enthusiastic late-night crowd. Amid Miss Vodka Stinger’s familiars, with water and cups of coffee keeping me alert, I settle in for a mesmerizing, moving, and yes even quietly monumental performance that begins at 11:30 pm and continues for an emotional and well-crafted set list of well-chosen tunes both familiar and new to me.
It was Pride weekend in New York City and our crowd was quietly focused on beginning their celebrations. Couples filled the lovely, warmly lit venue that always tends toward rosy and this week featured a table tent ad announcing “exclusive Pride cocktails” including such wonders as “Jungle Red” (vodka, ginger, cranberry, lime) and “Orange is the New Spritz” (Aperol, Pinot Grigio, Prosecco).
Taken with cocktails or coffee, the singing actress Miss Vodka Stinger is entrancing. (Note: Vodka Stinger is embodied by singer and actor Garth Shilling and referred to by feminine pronouns in this review.)
Musical director Frank Spitznagel on piano offered delectable accompaniment and occasional vocal harmonies; Steve Whyte on drums kept the rhythmic ship afloat; and Vodka Stinger’s regular two-person backup team The Martha Rays rallied around (Dan Travis on stage in person and Anne Rodeman via video feed). We were told that the engagement was quickly assembled as a “fill in” evening following a cancellation, yet it rolled out as an exquisitely accomplished set list, delivered by a seasoned professional, with comfortable rough edges the crowd enjoyed—a tune repeated to speed up the rhythm, or a tune begun and discarded for another that seemed to more closely match the mood of the room. We were all with her every step of the way.
Appearing in a glittery asymmetrical, long tunic top with bell sleeves and fancy slip slacks, luscious redhead Miss Vodka Stinger began with the uptempo tune that provided the show title and an initial fun tone, “I Wanna Live Till I Die,” (Al Hoffman, Walter Kent, and Mann Curtis) that led into a series of name-dropping anecdotes involving “famous character actors” (with a wink and a smile) including Pia Zadora, Terry Garr, Mickey Rooney, Ann Jillian, Dom DeLuise, and Sandy Duncan.
Our set list and patter contained many moments of raucous silly fun such as a run at “Old MacDonald” (Traditional) that had me chuckling and a bawdy “Jam Tomorrow Jam Yesterday” (Steve Allen) infused with a Mae West sensibility—the glamorous, growling, sexy, know-it-all side of Miss Vodka Stinger’s stage character. Her take on Dorothy Loudon’s “Supper on the Table at Six O’Clock” (Ian Donez, Eli Dawson) was a wondrous example of cabaret in a boogie-woogie mode. Her musings on her early “Stage Door Johnny” days in New York lurking to see the redheads who entranced her—Annie Golden and Mary Testa and Michele Pawk during her stint in Chicago—become a three-act play when followed by “I’m Shadowing You” (Blossom Dearie, Johnny Mercer) that slid neatly into “Drinkin’ Again” (Johnny Mercer) and resolved with “Night Life” (Willie Nelson).
My fears of an evening filled with faint bemusement at well-delivered snark quickly abated. The reality of Vodka Stinger’s talent and this particular set list was a deeper mixture of musing, reflection, deep cabaret knowledge, and vocal agility that took my breath away.
My heart was captured in particular by several mid-show sequences and the culmination of the evening. Irving Berlin’s usually bouncy “I Love a Piano” was delivered as almost an anthem—an entreaty—on her knees. The Tom Waits tune “Shiver Me Timbers” was a slow slide into a somber mood. Infectious camaraderie between Vodka Singer and her Martha Rays was shared in a medley of tunes (by The Sherman Brothers) from the Disney film Mary Poppins: “Jolly Holiday” (Bert’s light-hearted love of Mary in song) into “The Life I Lead” (Mr Banks’ anthem of clueless male privilege) with hints at “Sister Suffragette” and “Feed the Birds.” concluding with the crowd-winning “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”
The penultimate number for this show that closed up closer to 1 AM, may have best illustrated Vodka Stinger’s delicate and nuanced skills: “Lost in the Stars” by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson. For those familiar with Judy Garland’s version of this tune, this performance felt like a classy tribute to her legacy while being an expert and gorgeous creation all this performer’s own.
Miss Vodka Stinger: I’m Gonna Live Till I Die! took place Friday, June 24 at 11:30 PM at Feinstein’s/54Below (254 West 54th Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue). www.vodkastinger.wix.com/vodkastinger