One of the many wonderful things about that remarkable music/theatre hybrid known as cabaret is the wide variety of performance styles it can encompass.
Now, to those unfamiliar with the genre, that might seem a surprising statement. After all, how much variety can you really get out of one person, a piano or small combo, and repertoire that centers on the works of American songwriters from roughly 1920 through 1970?
To quote one of those songwriters (Irving Berlin), “you’d be surprised.”
The spring Cabaret at Savor season is a good example. In just the last month we’ve had the hip jazz of Paula West, the show biz cool of Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano and now, to close the season, the unpretentious cheer Barbara Brussell. Three widely divergent styles and three very different music mixes, and all of them top-flight cabaret.
Cabaret is, by definition, an art form that encourages two-way communication between artist and audience. Brussell takes this to what may be its logical extreme by talking to the audience, getting answers, and playing off those answers as the evening progresses. She combines a warm, open and rather bubbly stage persona with a finely tuned sensitivity to the mood of the room that’s quite irresistible. Stephen Holden of The New York Times has described her as “Kathleen Turner crossed with Sandra Dee” and while that doesn’t really do her justice, it does give you some idea of the complexity and appeal of her act.
Brussell calls her current show The Piano Bench of My Mind: Songs I’ve Been Sitting On For Far Too Long. It is, as the title implies, a varied and intriguing mix of material. Some of it, like Latouche and Fetter’s “Taking a Chance on Love” or Rogers and Hammerstein’s “I Cain’t Say No”, is familiar American Songbook stuff, but most of it isn’t. Better yet, some of the songs are by contemporary writers such as Craig Carnelia and John Bucchino. There’s also a Judy Collins classic (“Hard Lovin’ Loser”) complete with a “dance break” (how often do you get that in a cabaret show?), a wistful bit of Christine Lavin, and even three Sylvia Fine songs from the 1959 Red Nichols biopoic The Five Pennies. Those are sung as a kind of round with pianist and arranger Tex Arnold, who otherwise draws very little attention to himself – one of the hallmarks of the skilled and sensitive accompanist.
I was also very taken with “The Heel”, a caustic description of a soured relationship originally recorded by the great Eartha Kitt back in the 1950s and sounding, at least in Brussell’s scary/funny performance, very much like something that might have emerged from the pen of Kurt Weill – think “Surabaya Johnny” with a bit of prussic acid thrown in.
As the last few paragraphs demonstrate, one of the great pleasures of cabaret for me is hearing songs I’ve never heard before or songs I have heard before performed in novel ways. By that standard Brussell’s show is a pleasurable one indeed. Yes, it makes it harder to write a review when you don’t know the correct titles of many of the songs, but the joy of discovery has that minor inconvenience beat hands down. Besides, any program that includes gems like Blitzstein’s “I Wish it So” and not one but two numbers from Wright and Forrest’s Borodin-inspired Kismet has got my vote.
Mind you, Brussell’s approach might not be to everyone’s taste. If you’re of the opinion that the ideal cabaret evening should have lots of songs and not much personal reminiscence, you might find Brussell’s occasionally discursive personal narratives off-putting. Personally, I found them rather refreshing and invariably germane to the emotional truths of the songs that followed, but your mileage may vary.
Barbara Brussell will be offering her ebullient and eclectic mix of music and musings through Sunday [May 13th, 2007] in the Flim Flam Room at Savor St. Louis, 4356 Lindell in the
Barbara Brussell brings a strong season to a delightful close; thanks to series producer Jim Dolan for bringing these great acts to town.