Laughter, the old saying goes, is the best medicine. If so, The Medicine Show, the newest diadem in the crown of St. Louis cabaret star Ken Haller, was just what the doctor ordered. And Mr. Haller is a doctor, so he should know.

Sure, there were serious moments in this cabaret evening inspired by Dr. Haller's long and distinguished career in pediatric medicine. That included a sensitive version of Jason Robert Brown's "Someone to Fall Back On" and a truly moving rendition of "How Glory Goes" from Adam Guettel's Floyd Collins. But ultimately The Medicine Show was about good cheer.

And that's a good thing, given that contemporary American politics often leaves the more thoughtful citizen feeling (to continue the medical theme) like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis (a joke I stole from Tom Lehrer).

The comic tone was set at the very beginning as Mr. Haller (I'm dropping the "Doctor" from here on out, if we're all OK with that) entered from the house wearing an obviously fake black wig and singing "Ken Haller's Miracle Elixir" (formerly "Pirelli's Miracle Elixir" from Sweeney Todd) with music director/pianist Marty Fox playing Todd to his Toby. 

It was fast and funny, and set an engaging tone for the rest of the evening. It also showed the strong rapport between Mr. Haller and Mr. Fox, who often added a second voice to the evening to complement his sterling pianism.

The show reached its emotional heart with a lovely medley of "Holding to the Ground" from Falsettos), "Home" from The Wiz, and that Muppet classic "The Rainbow Connection" that was all about home, hope, and holding fast to what counts in life. Through it all, Mr. Haller delivered the goods with that combination of theatrical smarts and vocal authority that has made him one of our town's principal cabaret exports.

The Medicine Show was performed on April 8 at The Stage at KDHX where it will make a return engagement on Saturday, June 24. The Stage is the state of the art performance space with seating for around 100, great sight lines, and an adjoining café, it's a welcome addition to the roster of cabaret rooms in town. 

 

Full disclosure: I have been a huge fan of Lina Koutrakos and Rick Jensen for about ten years. They have been teachers of mine at cabaret conferences in St. Louis and in Greece. (Yes, Greece!) Rick has played shows for me in St. Louis and New York. So this review is not going to be about whether they're wonderful or not. They are. It's going to be about the kind of wonderful they are and why you should always seek them out and spend time with them whenever you can.

After All Those Love Songs, which Rick and Lina performed at the Kranzberg Arts Center in St. Louis on Friday, January 20, 2017, showed them at the top of their form and was a master class in the art of cabaret. Cabaret, of course, is about telling stories through song, about getting to know the performer a bit better, and about receiving gifts of music from the singer and accompanist in a menu of a dozen or so songs. Sometimes that is accomplished through a narrative that links the songs. For Lina and Rick, their easy camaraderie is that narrative, and if their show has a theme, it's about keeping those people you love in your life close and always letting them know how much they mean to you. This starts with the very first song that gives the show its name. Written by Rick and beautifully sung by both him and Lina, it is a meditation on facing the world when the love songs have ended. Lina then followed with a song that she wrote, "Mess Out of Love," about, well, making a mess out of love. 

Now, if this is making this show sound like a downer from the start, it is anything but. This is a show for grownups, for people who have been around the block and have had their heart broken yet still look for joy and beauty at every turn. In these songs Lina and Rick are not just writing You-Done-Me-Wrong lamentations but wise and deeply felt meditations on modern love. 

And there's plenty to laugh about too. In particular Rick's original "Heigh Ho, That's the German Way" about growing up in Minnesota occasioned a story that included an eccentric cast of characters from his hometown, including one Mary Hosnoggle, who would not be out of place in Lake Woebegone. Rick's guileless and hilarious delivery of both story and song even occasioned an audience singalong, making this the comedic high point of the evening. Another Rick original, "New York Is My Home" -- where  Rick's clever, soulful accompaniment included filigrees from Kander and Ebb's "New York, New York" and Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind" -- was so achingly sung by Lina that I got to thinking maybe it's time for me to move there myself.

While many of the featured songs were written by Rick and Lina, there were also more familiar songs. I was especially moved by Lina's rendition of "I Remember" by Stephen Sondheim. This quiet ballad about a girl who yearns for a new life is a list song as the singer aches to recall elements of the world she left long ago. Lina's connection to the lyric and the specificity of her phrasing made this the most searing rendition I have ever heard of this song and brought me to tears. Lina and Rick also created a brilliant interpretation of Bobbie Gentry's classic "Ode to Billie Joe." Rick's inventive accompaniment compellingly mirrored the mental state of the narrator from matter-of-fact to meandering to just a little weird, and together he and Lina created a mysterious sonic universe where the singer and Billie Joe McAllister might have thrown just about anything off the Tallahatchie Bridge.

As for the songs Rick and Lina wrote, some were familiar to me, some were new. All were splendid. One concern in a show like this where the lyric must be paramount is, what happens when the audience doesn't know the song? In this case there was nothing to worry about. Both Lina and Rick displayed impeccable diction and phrasing that was nevertheless colloquial and never affected. Lina can go from an Eartha Kitt purr to a Janis Joplin growl, and the audience will not miss a syllable. And since I usually think of him as the "piano guy," I am always caught a little off guard by Rick's warm, embracing voice. The audience was as comfortable as if they were being serenaded in their own living room.

We in St. Louis are very lucky that Rick and Lina have developed such strong ties to our city, and they come here to perform quite regularly. Please do yourself a favor and be on the lookout for the next time they're here. You will thank me!

 

 

As Al Joslon once sang to Jimmy Durante, "It's a thrill when a real piano player sits down at the keys." Last Friday, November 11, at the Gaslight Cabaret Festival, singer, songwriter, Sirius/SM radio host, and stride pianist extraordinaire Judy Carmichael showed that ol' Joley knew what he was talking about.

Because, make no mistake, Ms. Carmichael is a real piano player. She's got the powerful left hand you need for that strong octave/chord alternation that characterizes the bass line of the stride style along with a nimble right for all the flashy stuff. She dove into the long instrumental jams with her performing partner, guitarist Chris Flory, with a cheerful gusto that was positively infectious. Even her one blues number--"Boisdale Blues," a Carmichael original--was accurately billed as a "very happy blues" that takes its title from a London restaurant chain where Ms. Carmichael likes to play.

In fact, if this show was about anything it was about the joy of making music. You could see it in the little verbal asides between her and Mr. Flory and you could absolutely hear it in the endless invention and unflagging virtuosity of her keyboard style. Like so many of the great pianists, Ms. Carmichael treated those 88 keys as simple extensions of her fingers; a thought became music with the speed of neural transmission.

Ms. Carmichael is also a witty songwriter, as evidence by original numbers like the "Take Me Back to Machu Picchu" ("Where have you gone, my love hypnotic? / Remember when you weren't neurotic?") and "My Manhattan." She wrote the latter when she first moved from California to the Big Apple of which, as she reminded us, Ed Koch once said "if you're one in a million, there are ten of you in New York." Her lyrics and the music of her composing partner, Harry Allen, combine to create the kind of hip, "jazz patter" numbers I associate with Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross.

There were more quiet numbers in the show, of course, including a sensitive performance of the too rarely heard "The Lamp is Low," with Mitchell Parish's lyrics grafted on to Ravel's serene Pavane pour une infante défunte. But for the most part this was an evening that brought smiles of pleasure and frequent applause for the virtuosity on display.

The fall edition of The Presenters Dolan's Gaslight Cabaret Festival concluded last Saturday, but Jim Dolan continues to produce cabaret acts on an ongoing basis in The Emerald Room at The Monocle in the Grove. Ms. Carmichael, meanwhile, continues to tour.

 

As someone who, just two years ago, had a face-off with death in the form of life-saving brain surgery, Ari Axelrod has perhaps a more mature view on mortality than many other twenty-somethings. It certainly gave Taking The Wheel, his debut cabaret show, a depth of feeling that I have not always seen in the work of some of his contemporaries.

I'm not normally a fan of the "this is my life" school of cabaret, but Mr. Axelrod and his director, Broadway star and teacher Faith Prince, provided just enough biographical detail to help the audience understand why the songs were selected and why they mattered. Towards the end of the show, for example, brief patter about how that brain surgery (to correct a condition called Chiari malformation) forced him to face the fragility of life at a young age led into a medley of William Finn's "Holding the Ground" (from Falsettoland) and Adam Guettel's "How Glory Goes" (from Floyd Collins). That second song, in which a dying Floyd Collins wonders what the afterlife will be like (“Is it warm, is it soft against your face? / Do you feel the kind of grace inside the breeze? / Will there be trees, is there light?”) was especially moving for some of us older folks who are facing similar thoughts. And it allowed Mr. Axelrod to elaborate on his feelings through the songs rather than spelling them out for us in prose.

He was able to do that so effectively because he had clearly absorbed and thoroughly internalized the lyrics of the sixteen well-chosen songs in his act. That enabled him to create the illusion that the lyricists' words were his own, improvised on the spot. That's a sign of Ms. Prince's influence, and it worked very well for Mr. Axelrod, enabling him to quickly establish and hold rapport with the audience.

A good cabaret show, as I have noted in the past, should feel like a one-act play, with a strong dramatic structure and a resolution at the end. Taking the Wheel worked very well on that level, building to a big dramatic moment with the "Taking the Ground"/"How Glory Goes" medley and then segueing immediately into a pair of "lessons learned" songs by Sondheim, "Now You Know" (from Merrily We Roll Along) and "No One is Alone" (Into the Woods).

That, in turn, brought us back to a reprise of the title song (by John Bucchino, from It's Only Life). First heard at the top of the show in ballad tempo, it was clearly about self-doubt. When it returned at the end, up tempo, it became an affirmation: " Dreaming again and making those dreams real / Taking the wheel." It closed the dramatic circle neatly while setting up the encore, John Bucchino's "Grateful"—a song which feels very relevant in our current age of ingratitude.

The show was very solid musically as well as dramatically. Music director and pianist Ron McGowan skillfully performed well-thought-out arrangements that supported Mr. Axelrod's light and supple singing style. Mr. Axelrod relied just a bit too heavily on his head voice and falsetto range, in my view, but he has plenty of power and accuracy up there, so I can’t really complain.

The essence of cabaret, as my friend and cabaret star Dr. Ken Haller has pointed out, is telling stories through songs. In Taking the Wheel, Ari Axelrod told us his story in a way that was unfailingly engaging and intelligent. He's off to make his fortune now in New York City, and if this show was any indication, he has a promising future ahead of him.

Taking the Wheel was performed on Saturday, December 3, in the Emerald Room at The Monocle in The Grove.

 

As anyone who has ever seen Barb Jungr or Storm Large in action understands, there is definitely a place for rock at the cabaret table. Karen Irwin demonstrated that again last Saturday, November 5, with her killer Janis Joplin tribute at The Gaslight Cabaret Festival. 

The main thing you need to know about Ms. Irwin's show Janis, Me, and Bobby McGee is that it's neither simple celebrity impersonation along the lines of the Rat Pack shows, nor a straightforward run through Janis Joplin's Greatest Hits

Yes, Ms. Irwin definitely has the Joplin voice down pat. And her energetic, "full tilt boogie" performance style has the same raw emotional power that made the late singer such a formidable presence on stage. There's also no doubt that her set list included songs that even a casual admirer of Janis Joplin would recognize, like "Me and Bobby McGee," "Piece of My Heart," "Mercedes Benz," and "Down on Me."

But what made this a real cabaret show was the way she related Joplin's music to both her own life and to the history of women in pop music. When Ms. Irwin talked about learning to embrace a voice that was considered "not pretty," she was speaking not only for herself and Joplin, but ultimately for every woman who has defied the roles defined as "proper" for her by men. She told us a story that was her own and Joplin's and that of every woman who has ever sung the blues. 

In fact, one of the best things about this show was the way Ms. Irwin demonstrated that Joplin was part of an illustrious line of great female blues shouters going back to the early twentieth century. That means Clara Smith (whom Ms. Irwin calls the "queen of the moaners") whose 1924 "Don't Advertise Your Man" was such a hit for Bonnie Raitt and was sung so well by Ms. Irwin in the show. It also means Bessie Smith, represented in Ms. Irwin's show by the 1923 Jimmy Cox classic "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out." Other performers did it before and since, but Smith's 1929 recording is still the touchstone. 

And it means Big Mama Thornton, whose "Hound Dog" is still the definitive version, The King notwithstanding. She's represented in the show by a powerful rendition of one of her own compositions, "Ball 'n' Chain," which was also a favorite of Joplin's. It's easy to forget that Joplin was primarily a blues mama, so it was good to be reminded.

Ms. Irwin shifted back and forth between being herself and being a virtual incarnation of Janis Joplin with such ease that the change always felt entirely natural. I wasn't at all surprised, then, to see that her bio describes her as an "actor by trade, singer by accident." I have always maintained that actors have a leg up when it comes to cabaret for the simple reason that a well-constructed cabaret show is like a one-act play, and actors are more comfortable with that format. Those who ply their trade on the stage understand the importance of telling a story.

Backing Ms. Irwin in her pure tornado of a performance was an impressive band consisting of Paul Brinnell on piano, Leo Peña on drums, Brian Sharpe on guitar, Ed Sullivan on bass, and backup singer Narciso Lobo. Mr. Sharpe, in particular, tore off some smokin' solos.

Janis, Me, and Bobby McGee was part of the Gaslight Cabaret Festival's fall season, which concludes this coming weekend with jazz pianist and singer Judy Carmichael on Friday, November 11, and Ken Haller's The Medicine Show on Saturday, November 12. 

 

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