Ask most folks in Cleveland about cabaret singing, and they'll either refer to the helmet-haired songstress screeching "My Heart Will Go On" at the Ramada Inn or recall seeing Liza Minnelli once in the flick Cabaret. Not quite right on either count. Real cabaret singing is an art form in which the singer spins stories using both patter and music, frequently employing unfamiliar tunes (i.e. , obscure work from known composers or interesting ditties from failed Broadway musicals). Since cabaret artists focus on expressing the words, conventional rhythms and tempos are often crimped, twisted, or ignored entirely.
Since there's a serious lack of appreciation of cabaret in Cleveland, it's wonderful that producer-director Laura Workman and friends are bringing the Cabaret Sampler to Kennedy's at Playhouse Square during April. Featuring five or six different singers each weekend, the show offers a 15-minute taste of each performer's wares. And, as with any sampler box of chocolates, there are a couple of rich and delicious truffles alongside the occasional spit-it-out-quickly caramel. But the overall effect is delightful and whets the appetite for more.
Opening weekend was highlighted by a terrifically emotive set by Beth Yager, who made fun of her dour promotional photo and nailed a couple tunes, including the wistful "There's a Fine Line." Rob Gibb was endearing as he fretted about reaching midlife (his crisis: performing in a cabaret show), and he massaged the emotion in "Shouldn't I Be Less in Love With You." The most audience-friendly performer was Ralph Diludovico, short in stature but long in charisma, who encouraged an audience member to buy him a dirty martini in trade for one of his CDs. He also shared a six-song medley he once sang at a humiliating talent show.
Less successful was Lynnette Guttmann, who had a potentially cute Barbie-Doll prop gimmick and got in some shots at living in a red state. But her flat rendition of "Moon River" was out of a beginner's songbook. And Paul Hoffman was working so hard to reach the higher notes in his songs that neither he nor the audience could relax. (But kudos to him for adroitly handling a malfunctioning alarm bell that blared during his set.)
In the next three weekends, all of these singers will make return appearances, along with well-known local performers such as comical (and omnipresent) Kevin Joseph Kelly, Paula Kline-Messner from the long-running Menopause the Musical, and Workman herself. They are backed by a tight three-piece combo, led by cheerful musical director Charles Eversole on the (sad to say) electronic keyboard.
At its best, cabaret singing is passionate and personal -- whether the material is light or serious -- and it doesn't necessarily require great pipes. No one would ever accuse the recently deceased Bobby Short of being a pure singer, but he was a sparkling and engaging storyteller. And if this Cabaret Sampler can help reveal some of that kind of talent, the city will be much richer for it.