Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Cabaret Review: Michael Isaacs in Isaacs Schmisaacs at Don’t Tell Mama, NYC 5/20/09

Decked out in a bright green shirt and equally garish tie under a bathrobe, tumbling onstage with bottle in hand, 2009 MAC nominee Michael Isaacs effectively evoked the blithe yet doomed spirit of late 60s/early 70s pop crooner Harry Nilsson in an impressively well-chosen 21-song revue lit up with some sparkling comic bits and an outstanding supporting cast, imbued with characteristic out-of-the-box spontaneity by director Kristine Zbornik. A favorite of the Beatles, cult songwriter and Hollywood bad boy with several pop hits to his name, Nilsson (1941-94) walked a tightrope between sensitivity and schlock. Thankfully, Isaacs focused far more closely on the former than the latter, balancing boozy bravado with a significant undercurrent of unease. Ranging from a smooth, breathy lounge-pop croon to a showy glamrock baritone, he delivered the songs with a remarkably self-aware comedic timing that had him breaking the fourth wall whenever things threatened to go completely over the top.

While no amount of good comedy could rescue the show’s opener – the odious Three Dog Night hit One – from schlockville, things got brighter in a flash as the ensemble (the incomparable Bobby Peaco on piano, System Noise’s MAC-awardwinning Sarah Mucho on acoustic guitar, Elaine Brier, Maria Gentile and Jay Rogers on vocals plus a subtle, supple rhythm section featuring Dan Barton on bass) took the stage. Driving Along became an exercise in road rage, as Isaacs explained beforehand, speeding up to the point where the band couldn’t play it anymore and then stopped cold. Isaacs’ bathrobe finally came off for a medley of the Tin Pan Alley-esque 1941 (the year of Nilsson’s birth) and Daddy’s Song, Mucho singing the first verse with a vividly bitter astringence before passing the mic off to Isaacs. The Puppy Song and Best Friend got a vaudevillian treatment from Brier that brought the house down, punctuated by a hilarious sequence involving dog poop (it ended up with a couple at one of the front tables).

Peaco illuminated a wonderfully nocturnal version of Moonbeam with gentle rivers of triplets, Nashville gone glampop. In his cameo, Rogers offered a gentle, wistful take on another proto-power ballad, Lifeline, followed by Gentile raising the ante with her big, affecting vibrato on Without Her. One of the prettiest, warmest songs of the night belonged to Mucho, just her and Peaco taking a pensive, wary stroll through the abandoned gardens of Morning Glory.

Unsurprisingly, they saved the best for last. The best single song of the night was a hauntingly beautiful take of All I Think About Is You, Peaco singing with a tremendously moving, stark unsentimentality, Isaacs at the piano adding strikingly pointed jazz inflections. They wrapped it up with just Isaacs and Mucho on guitars and some devious, was-this-scripted-or-is-this-totally-improv moments, the guy cajoling and toying with the increasingly irked siren on soulful versions of  I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City (written for Midnight Cowboy but rejected by the producers) and then finally the one song that Nilsson didn’t write (that was the late Fred Neil) but won a Grammy for, Everybody’s Talkin’. This was the show’s last night, and it screams out from the gutter to the stars to be resurrected.

May 21, 2009 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Cabaret Review: Sarah Mucho in Subterranean Circus at the Duplex, NYC 12/3/07

This was a triumphant return for Sarah Mucho. Although she’s best known as the frontwoman for the ferocious, artsy rock band System Noise, her roots are in the cabaret scene. Her Ziggy Stardust shows at Mama Rose’s and other rooms a couple of years ago earned her rave reviews in the theatre press and a MAC Award, but since then she’s been busy with the band. Subterranean Circus, as this show is billed, is a futuristic cautionary tale blending surreal, often sacrilegious humor with a haunting, apocalyptic vibe, with echoes of early 80s punk rock performance art. There’s not much of a book, aside from between-song jokes (which are hysterical). The songs are mostly rock, other than a heart-stopping version of Nature Boy, where Mucho, backed only by superb accordionist Annette Kudrak, gets to show off and belt at the very top of her spectacular range. Otherwise, over the course of a little less than an hour, Mucho and her band ran through an impressively imaginative reworking of material ranging from Bjork (Human Behavior, rearranged as acoustic, piano-based funk), to Johnny Cash (Man in Black, augmented with a very funny sermon mid-song and ending with the outro to Stairway to Heaven), to an absolutely wrenching take of Cat Power’s Werewolf, rearranged for just accordion and bass and played with the lights almost all the way down.

Mucho does two Kinks covers, Apeman and Lola, taking an irresistibly silly turn on harmonica on the former. The latter, recast as noir jazz driven by a steady, walking bassline has the phenomenally talented Bobby Peaco coming out from behind the piano to deliver a very amusing turn on vocals. Other highlights include Simon and Garfunkel’s Most Peculiar Man, with horror-movie music-box piano from Peaco, an equally macabre cover of a Blonde Redhead song and a powerhouse rendition of Dress by PJ Harvey.

There’s also a surprise ending (much of which may not have been scripted) that wouldn’t be fair to give away. And then there’s Mucho’s voice. One of the maybe half-dozen most compelling singers in all of rock, (think Mary Lee Kortes intensity and strength throughout her entire range, and Neko Case for all-stops-out sultriness and stylistic diversity), she’s never sung better than she did tonight.

Mucho’s supporting cast gets pretty much everything right. The diversity and authenticity of Peaco’s arrangements are amazing: the guy can literally play anything, from gospel to honkytonk to classical. Director Kristine Zbornik has everything timed so perfectly tight the audience doesn’t even have time to finish laughing before Mucho’s next emotion-tugging move is on them, equally effective in inducing chuckles as well as awestruck silence. The show continues this Friday Dec 7 at 9:30 PM and as of this writing reservations (required: the first show sold out quickly) are available, call (212) 255-5438.

December 4, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments