Music News & Reviews By Joel Benjamin
May 3, 2014
Since 1978 the Symphony Space has presented a yearly—FREE!!—Wall to Wall event. This year it was Wall to Wall Cabaret, a monumental journey through the world of “saloon singers and comedians.” From 3 p.m. until after 11 p.m. a full house was serenaded, assaulted, amused and inspired by artists who ranged from the sublime to the tasteless.
The program was bookended by two giants of the cabaret world: Barbara Cook giving a master class to three young singers and the ever youthful Marilyn Maye making old chestnuts sound fresh. Ms. Cook’s advice to her three charges was: sing from your emotional gut, understand the lyrics, find resonance in your own life and make the song your own. Simple, right? A number of artists on this program might have benefited from this advice.
The program was divided into sections that carefully balanced classic American cabaret with new, alternative and international styles with a few forays into comedy, some of which were overbearingly and unnecessarily vulgar. We all like a bit of nastiness to pep things up, but body function humor (Cole Escola and Taylor Mac, both intelligent and uniquely themselves) belongs in high school locker rooms. Julie Halston and Jackie Hoffman were hilarious in bits that resonated with this Upper West Side audience.
The international style was elegantly personified by Jean Brassard singing “Nous Deux” (Ferré) and overbearingly by the chanteuse Ute Lemper whose multi-song episode tried the patience of the audience. Ms. Lemper’s repertoire was German-centric, her singing stylized to the point of caricature. She was helped immeasurably by Tito Castro on the bandoneón. BD Wong elegantly and tirelessly wound his way through the exhausting “Coconut Girl” from Noel Coward’s Girl Who Came to Supper.
The section on Singer-Songwriters featured Tony DeSare (“Chemistry” about opposites attracting), Benjamin Scheuer (“Cookie-tin Banjo” a lovely tribute to his dad who inspired him) and Andrew Lippa (“Marshal Levin” about being inspired by Stephen Sondheim). A related section was ASCAP and the New American Songbook which explored new materials with panache by six fine singers all accompanied by the composers.
Cabaret Classics were featured in two long sessions. James Naughton, the easygoing host of the evening channeled his inner Bing Crosby in “Stardust” (Carmicheal/Parish) and the doyenne of the Oak Room, Andrea Marcovicci, her voice a bit frayed, managed to turn “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” (Kern/Harbach) and “Say It Isn’t So” (Berlin) into a one-act drama. Karen Wyman, a big-voiced dynamo, sang three songs in the pop style of Eydie Gormé, wowing the audience with her renditions, particularly of “Where Do You Start?” (Mandel/A.&M.Bergman). She wrung all the pathos and meaning from each song.
Mr. Cabaret, himself, Steve Ross gave Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” a deeply moving interpretation, clearly coming from the perspective of an older man. Jennifer Sheehan, who talks way too much, sang Billy Barnes’ “Have I Stayed Too Long at the Fair?” in a rich, expressive voice while Bill Charlap accompanied his mother, Sandy Stewart in a richly layered “After You” (Porter). The two live wires, Billy Stritch and Jim Caruso teamed up for a Johnny Mercer medley while Jane Monheit nearly succeeded in making “Over the Rainbow” (Arlen/Harburg) her own.
The Wall to Wall Trio, Russ Kassoff, piano, John Arbo, bass and John Redsecker, drums provided most of the absolutely brilliant accompaniment, with Adam Ben-David, Wayne Barker and the songwriters pinch-hitting when necessary.
If nothing else, Wall to Wall Cabaret proves that there’s “life in the old girl” and cabaret will flourish for the foreseeable future.
Wall to Wall Cabaret
Sleeping Around 2014 Spring Festival
The Symphony Space
2537 Broadway at 95th St.
New York, NY
Tickets and Information: 212-864-5400 or www.symphonyspace.org
**PHOTOS: MARYANN LOPINTO