It’s official: Despite the confused but overzealous TV weathermen, the bikini displays at Barneys and the street-corner Koreans selling potted daffodils imported from Amsterdam, spring will be a little late this year. That hasn’t stopped the rushing of the season, however, by two current cabaret divas and one cabaret divan. Maria Friedman can touch your heart, Karen Akers can engage your emotions, and Patti LuPone can make you pray for earplugs. But like Jeanette McDonald, singing through the ruins of the Frisco quake, they’re still here!
Maria Friedman is what you might call the Bernadette Peters of London-an award-winning musical-comedy veteran of many West End shows, three by Stephen Sondheim. When I saw her at the National Theatre’s corny revival of Lady in the Dark , I didn’t much care for her or the show. (She was no Gertrude Lawrence.) But seeing and hearing her in the intimacy of the Café Carlyle is another story. Elegant, versatile and a wizard of understatement, she fits into the American cabaret idiom (which does not exist in England) with the greatest of ease. She admits she doesn’t know what a New York “cabaret act” really is, and proves what a blessed respite this is from the usual plethora of overstaged mini-revues with overworked “themes” we’ve grown so weary of on the nightclub scene. Mercifully, there doesn’t seem to be any thematic purpose to this five-week engagement, except to allow jaded New Yorkers to spend some quality time with a lady of charm and talent who is new to these shores. It’s a very pleasant visit indeed.
A button-tiny blonde with a creamy glow from the Goldie Hawn–Christine Ebersole Tweety Pie school, and coiffed like Peter Pan, Ms. Friedman’s tastefully gowned in black with a wisp of lavender chiffon to grace the neck, and accompanied by two standup pianos instead of one. She’s a stranger to the usual cabaret cliché, but that doesn’t mean her show is devoid of all zits. The two opening numbers are both from that ill-fated Lady in the Dark where I first discovered her. Obviously, this is a score that does not serve her well. The marvelous Kurt Weill–Ira Gershwin classic, “One Life to Live,” is sung in an impossible minor key with too many arty and unflattering tempo changes. The Comden and Green lyrics for “If” are too much of a tongue-twisting gym workout for comfort. A long medley of 50 songs by her two accompanists, Michael Haslam and Chris Walker, mixed up Bach, Sondheim, “Hernando’s Hideaway,” Mancini and “Oh Susannah!” with redundant and unnecessary intrusiveness. (Excuse me, but we came to hear Ms. Friedman, fellas!) And then there was the world premiere of a new song by Andrew Lloyd Webber from the forthcoming musical of the Gothic mystery The Woman in White , which will star Ms. Friedman next season on the London stage. I’m sorry, but Andrew Lloyd Webber songs all sound alike to me, and this one sounds like all the rest of them put together. There was also some odd patter the audience didn’t quite fathom, about growing up as a cellist and following her family around to hotel rooms in the provinces, before she discovered her true vocation as a singer. A lot of talk, and too much of it. But these are small caveats compared to the numerous joys to be found in the bulk of this program.
Just as I was asking myself, “Why don’t these ladies just sing pretty songs, simply and straight from the heart?”, that’s exactly what she did. Her rueful approach to Noël Coward’s “If Love Were All” was as sophisticated as a reserved English lass can get. Her unique and totally revolutionary spin on Sondheim’s “Broadway Baby” was an acting lesson no aspiring cabaret performer should be allowed to miss. She examined the cynical wit of Sheldon Harnick, the passion of Sondheim and the dreamy harmony of Jerome Kern, with the life experience in her voice and in her acting to understand them all. But, surprisingly, the highlight of the show was “Springtime,” a heartbreaking Yiddish theater song from the Lithuanian ghetto in World War II, in which a woman sees the sun and hears the birds on the other side of the barbed wire, then wonders what good is the warmth of the sky “when all seasons are the same and tomorrow is as bleak as today.” The song is as beautiful as it is chilling, and Ms. Friedman sings it with so much measured emotion that her delicacy reduces the audience to tears. Few classically trained sopranos ever move me on a cabaret stage surrounded by waiters serving cosmopolitans. Fewer still have a take on the emotional subtext of a song. Maria Friedman evokes so many voices and moods that she can dazzle you with the sound of her voice and interpret lyrics with sensitivity at the same time. In an overworked cabaret world overcrowded with kids, Maria Friedman at the Carlyle (through May 1) may not be a conventional musical act, but it’s definitely a welcome-and badly needed-musical experience for grownups.
Years ago, when I first reviewed Karen Akers, I remember writing that she reminded me of one of those lacquered, sharp-featured feline predators from 40′s film noirs with smoldering tonsils (Lisabeth Scott) and peekaboo bangs (Veronica Lake), who walked into a club, leaned wearily against a Doric column, wounded the heart of either Robert Mitchum or Alan Ladd, then retired for the night after only one song. In her current gig at the Algonquin’s famed Oak Room (through May 15), Ms. Akers stays onstage a great deal longer. Long enough, in fact, to sing all or part of at least 19 songs, most of them standards from Broadway, Hollywood and the Great American Songbook. This is a good thing, and about time. Ms. Akers has devoted so much of her career to refurbishing wrist-slashing dirges in French and German that she’s only now beginning to discover the far superior works of art produced right here at home. The blend of her sultry baritone, Prince Valiant bangs and statuesque form draped in a clinging gown the color of seasoned merlot makes for an arresting hour. She’s more relaxed and humorous than I’ve ever seen her, and singing better than ever. Well, why not? Singing timeless material by such royalty as Ogden Nash, Vernon Duke, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, Sammy Cahn, Duke Ellington, Kurt Weill and Cole Porter inspires her, for reasons too obvious to mention. All of which gives Ms. Akers a melting warmth of dimension that is rare for a stylist too often accused of cool and aloof indifference. I think she’s really been listening, stretching and growing as an artist.
There are a few really ghastly mistakes: at least one of those boring Edith Piaf anthems for which she still displays a salient weakness, and would you believe the whining “Unchained Melody” theme from an old Warner Bros. flick about a prison chain gang, sung in Italian? (Huh?) For the most part, though, the nucleus of this engaging hour narrows the focus to the classics. Accompanied by the excellent pianist-arranger Don Rebic, Ms. Akers’ mood moves from plaintive (“How Long Has This Been Going On?” with Ira Gershwin’s ravishing, seldom-heard verse sung by Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face ), to frisky (Frank Loesser’s bouncy “If I Were a Bell” from Guys and Dolls ), to world-weary (Bart Howard’s “You Are Not My First Love,” which used to be a staple in the treasured repertoire of the legendary Mabel Mercer). My happiest personal revelation: “Just One of Those Things” sung in a rare ballad tempo so sensuous that it provides a whole new way of looking at, listening to and thinking about this Cole Porter evergreen. “A trip to the moon on gossamer wings, one of those things …. ” I’ve never heard it phrased like that. It’s the kind of acting in meter that the late, great Mabel was famous for. When you can take a song that has been sung by everyone who ever held a microphone since it was written in 1935, and find something new to do with it that still respects the integrity of the song, I really call that creative. The new respect I have for Karen Akers is downright restorative.
Maria Friedman is a soprano. Karen Akers is a baritone. Patti LuPone is just … loud. The hype injected into the P.R. for “The Lady with the Torch,” her current invasion of Feinstein’s at the Regency (through April 24), calls it her first appearance in a New York club in 25 years. No wonder. She turns torch songs into dangerous weapons. Maybe she’s been counted among the missing because she’s been busy. But I secretly suspect nobody can afford to keep replacing all those crystal glasses she breaks with the kind of caterwauling better suited to a hog farm than a Park Avenue supper club. O.K., I admit it. Except for her effective work in the long-ago Evita , I’ve never been a fan of her particular brand of vocal violence. With her phony enunciation, she was the worst Annie Oakley I have ever seen, and her sexless grimaces and blast-furnace pyrotechnics massacred the Lincoln Center revival of Anything Goes . She was so campy when I saw her in the London production of Sunset Boulevard that she was replaced by the much better Elaine Page. And let me tell you, when you get fired by Andrew Lloyd Webber, it’s time for a career re-think. Only recently, when the voice matched perfectly with the role of the busty old proprietor of a Paris speakeasy in the “Encores!” revival of Can-Can , did my cynicism begin to soften. Under the guidance of a firm director, she sang two Cole Porter show-stoppers and earned the deserving applause that followed. No doubt the success of that brief staged concert inspired the current cabaret show at the Regency. No doubt the same success went to her head faster than a dozen martinis. She reprises two songs from Can-Can with panache, but otherwise she’s once again up to her old tricks and bad habits, killing off songs like she was swatting bugs. Some music lover should make a citizen’s arrest. She is committing musical homicide.
Torch songs are best left to song stylists with husky, throaty chops, exquisite phrasing techniques and a fearlessness about showing their own emotional vulnerability. Even for opera singers who long to cross over from classics to pop and jazz, the first requisite is sensitivity to the material. (The late Eileen Farrell was good at this; Dame Kiri Ti Kanawa is not.) Torch songs are anathema to belters. Ethel Merman could be heard on the gold fillings of soldiers in Bastogne, but she could not sing a torch song. Merman may be the rocket-launching mentor Patti LuPone most wants to emulate. It’s a fatal mistake. She lumbers onstage like a Hummer and turns the Dietz-Schwartz standard “By Myself” into a one-man crash course in how to destroy a classic. The lyrics mean nothing. The phrasing is jabberwocky. Moving on to “I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry”: If he could hear her rambling autopsy on this jazz aria, the late composer Jule Styne would undoubtedly stalk up to the stage and smack her right across the face. For a belter with a curled lip, a surly persona and a minimal awareness of how to tell any kind of story through lyrics, Ms. LuPone has the audacity to twist June Christy’s signature masterpiece “Something Cool” into something like a discourse on a hooker’s downfall. Billy Barnes’ famous lyrics were so distorted beyond meaning that she had the audience laughing nervously in the wrong places. Willard Robison’s “A Cottage for Sale” was described in a pathetic attempt at humor as “the most painful part of the end of a love affair-the real estate.” The dark purple pensiveness of “Ill Wind” made Harold Arlen sound like a goatherd yodeling on the Matterhorn. “Frankie and Johnny,” an ossified artifact that nobody I have ever known ever wants to hear again, was screamed in a Stepin Fetchit imitation like a satire on a blackface minstrel show. “Other Woman,” the best-performed song in the act, was a merciful and miraculous exception. It’s the thoughtful confession of a wounded lover whose relationship has been ruptured by another woman who does everything right but who, in the end, will end up alone. Ms. LuPone sang it poignantly, mercifully dropping the nasal, theatrical showoff vulgarity that marred the rest of the show. Then, unable to resist pandering to her fans, she ended the song on a delicate note but punctured the mood she had just created by spitting out “Fuck her!” Her deluded fans, who had only mildly applauded the song, suddenly went wild. This woman is a juggernaut on a course of self-destruction, while her claque tirelessly eggs her on. The louder she screeches, the louder they whistle, yell and stomp their approval. Her followers are like the enablers who distance substance abusers from A.A. meetings. I don’t get it. But I didn’t get Liberace and Tiny Tim, and they had fans, too.
It’s not that Patti LuPone has no talent; it’s just that she is clueless about what to do to improve and enhance the talent she already has. She’s been getting away with murder too long. It’s time to cut out the sophomoric mannerisms and learn how to serve a song properly. Compressing the essence of all that outsized noise and unleashing it on a small stage the size of a treadmill can do permanent damage to the eardrums. This act is pure torture. At Feinstein’s, where torch songs require contact, intimacy, a $60 cover and a two-drink minimum, only the last two are anywhere in evidence.