Anyone who has made the trek through college is aware of the phenomenon known as the sophomore slump. Coming fast on the heels of exciting freshman discoveries (So that's how much butterscotch schnapps I have to drink to blow chunks!), the second season is often a period of developmental confusion for bleary-eyed scholars.
Alas, this also seems to be the case for cabaret shows. The intrepid Lora Workman, producer and director of the second season of Cabaret Sampler at Kennedy's Down Under, is once again gathering a collection of performers to share 15-minute tastings of their singing and patter. But the opening night's menu skewed heavily in favor of raunchy jokes and painfully obvious shock yocks. There were a few hearty chortles, but this is definitely a form of cabaret Maureen McGovern would have a hard time recognizing.
The six-person Sampler (it's a different combination of performers each weekend) was bracketed by two sex-focused routines. Eileen Burns kicked off the proceedings by announcing her intention to present a "Cabaret Personals Ad." She then revealed her shirt, which had her phone number on the front and "I Put Out" on the back -- indicating the level of wit that would prevail all evening. And the proceedings ended with Nickolas Vannello running a Brokeback Cabaret gag into the ground by supposedly trying to guide a straight guy in the audience through a gay affair from infatuation to breakup. This clever premise was ultimately sabotaged by graphic references more suited to a gay bar (No, Grandma, he's talking about fisting) and Vannello's vocal struggles to maintain the intended melodies.
The four remaining stylists ranged from excellent to embarrassing. June Lang, a self-described survivor of the long-running show Menopause, the Musical, handled some salacious material with a wry smile, then transitioned into a heartfelt ballad without missing a beat, yielding a seamless set that was a pleasure to behold. Also in fine form was Kristin Netzband, who used her electric personality and sizzling singing chops to comically relate the horrors of the auditioning process.
Unfortunately, two of the older singers, who concentrated on their songs rather than on being funny, were out of their depth. Retired psychologist Susan Murphy committed second-degree manslaughter on "Over the Rainbow," and her cracking voice and lack of charisma didn't improve in subsequent numbers. Later, silver-maned Wayne Moreland turned "Put Your Head on My Shoulder" into a Prussian funeral dirge, dropping every lyric on its assigned note with the mechanical precision of an industrial robot.
Here's hoping that Workman and musical director Charles Eversole devote future Samplers to the real art of cabaret. These productions could spotlight accomplished singers who have the skills to take chances with phrasing and find the expressive soul of songs. And while we appreciate a good sex joke as much as the next person, cabaret is not a stand-up routine. Either keep the focus on the singing or relabel the whole thing Def Comedy Cabaret.