Heaven and Hell in the Cabaret Scene

I've spent the month of February not just in college or my internship up in Manhattan, but I have tried hard to make time to see a few shows in the cabaret circuit. This time around, I'm giving myself a bit of variety by getting away from listening to the divas of the scene. This piece is dedicated to a couple of guys from the cabaret scene - John Barrowman and Rock Albers!

John Barrowman in Arci's Place (February 20th to March 1st)

It's been two years since I saw Mr. Barrowman on Broadway as a part of the cast in the Sondheim revue Putting it Together. I admired his voice first, but also his dancing in a seductive ballet with Ruthie Henshall. With a show in Arci's Place (directed by Barry Kleinbort and written by Bruce Vilanch), John is readying himself to take off to a future engagement to the Sondheim Celebration in Washington D.C. in May. Specifically, he's going to play the single-guy lead amongst the marriage-obsessed characters in the musical Company!

On his own, John is like a choirboy transformed by the forces of sophistication and admiration of talent. Accompanied by musical director Gerald Sternbach (who did great work with west-coast stalwart Jason Graae) and bassist Mary Ann McSweeney (back from the days of Sunset Blvd. in London), the evening was one of family, the love of the American Songbook, and the transition to the latter-day songwriters (Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd-Webber). With Bruce Vilanch being the writer for the evening's biographical patter, a sharp joke or two was floating around.

Just like some of us musical lovers out here, we are still sentimental to the likes of Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer. When the night turned to a small shout-out to George M. Cohan with a medley of his songs, John pulled out a flute from the middle of nowhere and did "Yankee Doodle Dandy." Hmm. . . Was it a coincidence that Jason Graae did the same with an oboe in front of the same musical director?

As said before, Mr. Barrowman did the Lloyd-Webber musical Sunset Blvd. in London - as Joe Gillis to Betty Buckley's Norma Desmond. I also saw a little channeling of both characters fighting each other in John's mind when he did "With One Look" followed by the title song.

As a surprise, the Barrowman family is invited to the act - especially at the encore. It's already an excellent landing of the show with the hymns "Amazing Grace" and "Loch Lomond" to combine his American and Scottish roots. John even brought his mother to the stage to do a Scottish wedding song because she can do a very good "Ave Maria." If the mother and son gave us the words to sing together, then the evening's end will be perfect.

Rock Albers in Don't Tell Mama (February 23rd to March 2nd)

Whereas Mr. Barrowman is a sign from a musical-loving Heaven, Rock Albers is a survivor from a kind of Hell written by the likes of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Rock shows us how is it like to face a Hell filled with comedic issues no comedian dared to discuss without struggling for his own humanity, let alone breaking in a furious sweat while wearing a suit to go along with rabbit ears. Mr. Albers is not alone in this task, as musical director Dick Gallagher (famous for his musical When Pigs Fly followed by concerts and recordings with all kinds of musical divas) is his cynical piano-equipped gondolier in this river Styx, always seeking diversions from this underworld.

The voyage starts out with sharp lights, with shadows out every part of him except his face. Rock uses a bullhorn to tell us the many ways of being told he was BORING! We can only watch as he recalls the world (and Jacqueline Onassis) pelting him with the same idea that he's so boring. He needs to find sanity...

The is a search for things Mr. Albers can use to keep himself "sane." This is where his song parodies come in. "The Ballad of Davy Crocket" turned into an example of man's duality to worship Martha Stewart and to curse one's lungs out against her. When the TV show "I Love Lucy" was mentioned (it's Rock's favorite show), he realizes that the episodic nature of episodic television started out like in the history of Ingsoc in the book 1984 - the most important ideas and characters for the show keep changing and changing to the level of insanity.

But hope is around the corner, as Rock finds a cause to fight for - The Bunny Hop. Yours truly has jumped to the opportunity (for the second time) to save the Bunny Hop with the audience.

My favorite part of this trip in the underworld of dissonance is a speech about chocolate. Certain chocolates in Europe decades ago were made with vegetable fat (rather than cocoa butter), and outrage ensued. From then on, the word "Vegelate" was unofficially used to describe such chocolates. (Note: search for the term "Euromyth" on the Internet for more details.) The audience chanted "Vegelate" with Mr. Albers, and I wanted to pump my fist up in the air in protest - that is, if the audience would have enough energy to do the same.

Speaking of Monty Python, I get to hear the "Finland" song from the Flying Circus show! It was the discussion of Finland and the rest of Northeastern Europe sharing the same flag that led to this little gem, and fake snow stuffed in Mr. Albers' suit was thrown out all over the stage.

The deepest part of Hell doesn't lead to Satan, but to "The Berenstain Bears." The discontinous nature of "I Love Lucy" was nothing compared to the changes of locale, characters, and the entire Bear Country. Neighbors come and go with no reason, the Bear family lives in a tree, yet everything inside changes in every book. It's as though the Berenstain Bears are really killers... And the world (and the cabaret itself) is engulfed in darkness.