Cabaret Review: Two Big Names, Two Big Flops

lonette mckee Cabaret Review: Two Big Names, Two Big FlopsTwo high-powered talents in a pair of ill-conceived acts top the cabaret scene this week.

When Nathan Gunn, the crown prince of grand opera, shed his clothes at the Met in An American Tragedy, one serious critic suggested a clause in all future contracts requiring that the hunky baritone sing at least one aria shirtless. At the swank Café Carlyle, he only removes his tie, but long hours at the gym still pay off. Alas, just because you can pack every concert hall in the world singing everything from La Bohème to The Barber of Seville does not mean you can croon “I’ve Got a Crush on You.” Mr. Gunn is an all-American boy from Illinois with “nice” written all over his face, but “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” is not Schubert lieder; he woodenly overwhelms “My Funny Valentine”; and the crossover from Puccini to pop and show tunes proves he cannot swing.

Worse still, he is accompanied by his wife, Julie, a clunky pianist with no sense of rhythm or time. Mr. Gunn is so modest he actually blushes when it comes to his own triumphs, so they share family tales of their home in Champaign and the five kids they parked with their grandparents. The patter is right out of The Lawrence Welk Show, and the musical repertoire includes one art song with words by James Joyce, one about a whorehouse in Mitteleuropa, two horrors by Tom Waits and a few ill-suited cowboy songs that evoke images of horses and cornfields. But the voice is too rich, too powerful and too classically trained for Harold Arlen’s “I’ve Got the World on a String.” And what in the world is Nathan Gunn doing singing “Home on the Range?” It’s the sort of thing you might enjoy in the opera star’s living room after a dinner of home-cooked meatloaf. But not at the Carlyle. And not at these prices.

When Lonette McKee played the doomed Julie in Harold Prince’s splashy Broadway revival of Show Boat, she hypnotized us with her throaty, lusty, been-around rendition of “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man.” Her act at the Algonquin (through April 30) takes the name of that signature song, but she doesn’t sing it at all. Like too many of today’s cabaret performers, she prefers to perform her own songs, even if her own songs are lousy. “Just call me a child music prodigy,” she says. That was many years and several pounds ago. She shouts and grinds her way through a few obscure Billie Holiday songs and pounds home “When a Woman Loves a Man” like a race at Hialeah; her phrasing is all wrong. Kicking off her shoes and parading around the room barefoot, she does no justice to Harold Arlen’s gorgeous “Ill Wind,” which she sang in Francis Ford Coppola’s film The Cotton Club. By the time she returned for a Show Boat encore of “Bill,” the audience had already stopped applauding. The patter was pointless, and one long story about a bird that got lost behind her bed was downright embarrassing. Lonette McKee still has a big voice and cascading hair the same size, but she hasn’t a clue how to play an intimate supper club like the Oak Room. At one point she even introduced “How Long Has This Been Going On?” as a song George Gershwin wrote for My Fair Lady.

Come again, dear, but next time, like the game scout we know you are, “Be prepared.”

rreed@observer.com