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Saturday, 22 February 2014 15:25

Ken Page's 'Old, New, Borrowed, and Blue' shows a master at work

Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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Ken Page at the premiere of 'The Nightmare Before Christmas'
Ken Page at the premiere of 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' Vince Bucci / Getty Images Entertainment

I've always maintained that actors in general and musical theatre actors in particular have something of a head start when it comes to cabaret. They already know how to give meaning to a lyric and how to connect with an audience. As evidence, I offer up Ken Page's "Old, New, Borrowed, and Blue," which kicked off The Presenters Dolan's Gaslight Cabaret Festival on February 20 and 21.

A veteran of stage and screen and a familiar figure at the Muny, the St. Louis-born actor has been on the cabaret circuit for many years now, including appearances at one of New York's newest and (I'm told) coolest venues, 54 Below. His show at the Gaslight was almost a textbook example of How to Do Cabaret—perfectly paced, completely engaging, and nicely balanced.

To illustrate my point, let me tell you how the evening began. It started with an upbeat instrumental version of the Temptations hit "Get Ready" by Mr. Page's talented combo: pianist/music director Henry Palkes, drummer James Jackson, and bassist Vince Clark. Then, after a moment of silence, Mr. Page's voice was heard from house right singing the opening phrase of "Feelin' Good" (from "The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd")—a cappella and right on pitch. He came onstage singing, the band kicked in, and everything was off to a strong start.

But there was a problem. Mr. Page's wireless mic had failed, so he interrupted the song to ask the sound tech to fix it while he used the wired mic on stage. It was all done smoothly and with good humor. The mic was fixed, the song ended, and Mr. Page chatted with the audience a bit. He confessed, with mock shyness, that people had taken to calling him "Big Daddy" lately—a comically self-deprecating reference to Mr. Page's girth. He then built an audience participation bit on that, getting everyone, on the count of four, to yell "Big Daddy!" It took a few tries for us all to get the beat, but in the end the house rocked with the words "Big Daddy" and the audience was solidly on Mr. Page's side. When he then launched into a cheerfully raunchy version of Howlin' Wolf's "300 Pounds of Heavenly Joy" he brought the house down.

And that, as Johnny Carson once said of another cabaret veteran, Marilyn Maye, is how it's done. Within the space of five minutes or so, Mr. Page had established his vocal chops, shown he could deal gracefully with bumps in the road, and established a rock solid relationship with the audience.

As I said: textbook.

The rest of the evening followed suit. You can see the complete song list at the end of this review, but here are what struck me as some of the highlights.

About halfway through the show, Mr. Page introduced "Memory" from "Cats" (one of the many Broadway shows in which he has appeared) by dedicating it to all the friends he has lost over the years to HIV/AIDS. His performance was hushed and almost reverential—utterly unlike the big "eleven o'clock number" approach most singers take. He made it, as a result, completely his own and completely moving.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum was his set of songs from the "Fats" Waller tribute musical "Ain't Misbehavin'" (another of Mr. Page's Broadway triumphs). "The Joint is Jumpin'" and "Your Feet's Too Big" were appropriately rollicking and "Ain't Misbehavin'" was nicely wistful. His updated version of the Sonny and Cher chestnut "The Beat Goes On" was great fun and his powerfully soulful take on Count Basie's "Mr. Piano Man" was enhanced by great keyboard work from Mr. Palkes, replicating Basie's original.

One of the most winning moments of the evening was a tribute to the late St. Louis songwriter Fran Landesman. Mr. Page recalled Ms. Landesman's importance as both a lyricist and a guiding light of the Crystal Palace nightclub during the heyday of Gaslight Square, the legendary St. Louis entertainment district that flourished around Olive and Boyle (just north and east of the Gaslight Theatre) back in the 1950s and early 1960s. That served as the introduction to Ms. Landesman's best-known song, "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" (music by Tommy Wolf). The song was clearly a recent addition to the show, so Mr. Page used a lyric sheet because "this song has a great lyric and I don't want to get it wrong." His performance was nevertheless tremendously effective. Seated next to me, my friend Anna Blair—who knew Ms. Landesman well and has done a Landesman tribute show of her own—was fighting back tears. That's how good it was.

The evening closed out with high-voltage renditions of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman's "They Just Keep Moving the Line" (I know the feeling…) from "Smash" and "Be a Lion" from the show that marked Mr. Page's Broadway debut, "The Wiz." His encore, the poetic "Shambhala," was accompanied by overtly theatrical hand gestures that should have come across as artificial and affected but instead felt organic and completely right for the lyric and the mood. Like everything else in this very solid show, it just worked.

The Gaslight Cabaret Festival continues through April 25th at the Gaslight Theatre, 358 North Boyle in the Central West End. For more information:

Song List:
Get Ready (Smokey Robinson)
Feelin' Good (Anthony Newley / Leslie Bricusse)
300 Pounds Of Heavenly Joy (Howlin' Wolf)
The Beat Goes On (Sonny Bono)
Summertime Love (Frank Loesser)
Magic To Do / Corner Of The Sky (Stephen Schwartz)
The Joint Is Jumpin' (J.C. Jones / Andy Razaf / Fats Waller)
Your Feet's Too Big (Ada Benson / Fred Fisher)
Ain't Misbehavin' ("Fats" Waller)
Memory (Andrew Lloyd Webber)
Mr. Piano Man (Count Basie)
Betty and Dupree (Traditional)
Spring Can Reeally Hang You Up The Most (Tommy Wolf / Fran Landesman)
They Just Keep Moving The Line (Marc Shaiman / Scott Wittman)
Be A Lion (Charlie Smalls)

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