Thoughts on 54 Below, 'Blood Brothers' and Cabaret

My friend tells this story about her debut at 54 Below (now Feinstein's/54 Below). I was in the audience. I had purchased tickets like a normal person and was eager to cheer her on. About a half a year prior, she had been dropped from a musical she had been with all through its development. The reason was, in all honesty, they went in a totally different direction, and hired a bigger name before the show's out-of-town tryout. To this day I don't think it had to do with her performance. However these things in general sound bad to an audience and so, unbeknownst to me, she had chosen to sing a song from the show but insert in some story about how a scheduling conflict made her unavailable for its premiere. She claims that, upon hearing this, I put put my head down into my hands and then did not lift it for the remaining 20 minutes of the show. I remember seeing the rest, so I suspect I did do the head-in-hand for a moment but then, realizing I was in public, tried to seem into the remainder.

Regardless, I tell this story to illustrate why I'm always a little nervous going into Feinstein's/54 Below for cabaret shows. I go to tons of readings and workshops--I spent chunks of the last few weeks talking to actors, directors and producers about what is working and what is not in their shows and performances. That's one of my favorite things to do. I never write about these experiences, and certainly not everyone listens to me (nor should they), but I am always happy to see shows in development. I like talking to actors about their experiences. But I like this stuff because it's honest. If you know me well, or you've been interviewed by me, you know I don't like feeling snowed. I never snow anyone, nor would I attempt it. I will look for something good to say, I'm not mean, but I'll tell the truth when pushed.

My dislike of cabaret stems from a few things. I don't love hearing simple concerts of standards. I like stories. I think a lot of people are too young to have good stories or the stories they have they don't want to tell, as they are still at the phase of their careers where they don't want to burn bridges. Additionally, some people are brilliant actors or singers, but don't have the personality to sell personal stories. They have to play a character up there, even when the audience is craving intimacy. The thing that makes Patti LuPone's shows so genius is that she has a way of selling each song so that you feel they are part of an honest story, whether she has fully fleshed it out or not. Most others just aren't as good. Yet I attend a lot. I want to see people I'm a fan of or people I know personally. I want them to be good. I've liked three in the last year or so--Linda Lavin, Melissa Errico and Julia Murney. (Though I should note I don't see that many, and I missed Alice & Emily and Lea Salonga. I sense I would have liked those. I think Lea Salonga is always perfect. Also, I enjoyed the Joe Iconis & Family concert I saw, but I'm not counting that as traditional cabaret.) Murney did right what my friend did so wrong--her show felt honest. I don't know her well enough to know if it was 90% artifice, but, sitting in the audience, it didn't feel like it. (My friend would I suspect argue that her show wouldn't have seemed fake to most, but I think even an average audience rarely buys "scheduling conflicts" as a reason for missing something without a demonstrable conflict laid out.) I've seen Murney in almost everything she has done New York, sans Wicked and maybe one or two small things. In a strange way I credit Julia Murney with getting me my first job as a theater reporter, but, that is a long story for another time. Anyway, her show was the best possible version of what I expected. It displayed both her voice and personality well. I would have sent anyone.

But not everyone likes the same thing out of cabaret shows. There are a ton of people who simply love cabaret in all forms. They love simple concerts even. They go to not only Feinstein's/54 Below to see it, but all over. The person sitting next to me at Feinstein's/54 Below the other night had come from the Metropolitan Room, where she was seeing another act. That's just not me. An actress I hardly know asked me nicely to hear the run through of her new cabaret show--I was honored, but noted that these things are extremely personal and subjective. Am I really the best judge? Her theory was at the very least I'd be honest; then she could choose to listen to me or not.

The nerves that I have going into that sort of experience, a cabaret show, are not present when I go to attend presentations of musicals. I love musicals. Generally when I'm going to a presentation of an old musical, I know the musical. There are very few old musicals that are well-known enough to be done at Feinstein's/54 Below that I don't know at all. I've often wondered in sort of an academic way who goes to those things outside the industry. Super fans of the show? Fans of the people involved? I suspect it is somewhat of a combination. But one thing I do know--if you are doing more than a simple concert of songs, almost everyone in the audience should be able to follow it. That is not a subjective thing I'm saying--it's not a matter of taste. It's a matter of right and wrong.

Last week I attended Blood Brothers. I was excited about it. It's one of the few shows I frequently hear referenced but yet know not at all. The cast was strong. I see every Donna Lynne Champlin show. Plus, Champlin had told me weeks before she'd be playing one of her dream roles when she appeared in it. Teal Wicks was one of the highlights of Piece of my Heart and the sad Jekyll & Hyde revival. (I also remain happy with my Constantine Maroulis story from that Jekyll revival, but pretty much everything else I've forgotten.) I was a big fan of Hannah Elless's performance in Bright Star. The show is rarely done in America regionally. So this mounting seemed like an ideal time to take in the musical.

I've been to many concert presentations of musicals in this space. I know its limitations. There is very little rehearsal time. The stage is small. Trimming is required to get in under time. Yet I've never been as confused as I was watching Blood Brothers. Director Jenny Leon (whose work I am unfamiliar with) did a poor job. There was too much get on the stage/get off the stage. I've been there when there are people off-mic singing, for harmony. I have never been there when I felt like people who were off-mic were riffing. Yet that is just what happened this time. During one group number, I was watching some folks standing nearby the stage and thinking: "They clearly are doing something, but I don't know what." I'm not sure how an audience member can be expected to hear or see folks that are both off mic and out of the light.

But more than this, what annoyed me was the presentation's failure to convey what was going on or why we should care. This is no fault to the performers. Champlin's voice is perfectly suited to the material. Beau Cassidy, who played Mickey, I thought sounded great. Not everyone was doing the same accent (or any accent), but that is to be expected given the time constraints and I don't fault them for that. What I left unclear about was the intention behind the mounting. I've been to Feinstein's/54 Below when they simply present a concert of songs. In those, context doesn't matter. Here there was a real attempt to tell the story, which I appreciate, but the attempt failed to such an extent that it left me confused. Perhaps the goal was too ambitious. However one would think the narration already built into the musical would have helped tell a real story, even with Feinstein's/54 Below's limitations, if the presentation was simply put in more experienced hands.

I do wonder if I had known the show whether I would have enjoyed it more. I bet so (apart from the direction problems). However I'm pretty sure if you're going to present a semi-full musical it should be able to appeal to everyone.

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