Kevin on Kabaret :: Into the New Year
While we celebrate a new year's hope and promise, it's also a good time to revisit the cabaret stars we've known and loved for some time and see what they are up to.
I spoke with the enchanting Natalie Douglas, who just did her 15th New Year's Eve performance at the Duplex and will be appearing at Birdland on the 20th to celebrate her birthday show.
"I first did a birthday show in 2012, then had to cancel last year because I broke my leg," Douglas told me. "It will be kind of like my personal iPod collection, songs I grew up listening to and some I haven't had a chance to sing yet."
The date also coincides with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, which is not lost on Douglas. "I always have something political in the show, so I will work it into the show somehow," she said. "I love doing the research and the historical aspect of my shows. Even though there is this image of pretty white ladies in gowns singing to wealthy white audiences, we are part of this history of cabaret music."
It's a message Douglas has been bringing to inner city high school students, through her work with the Mabel Mercer Foundation.
"For homework, I gave the students a list of names like Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, and then asked them to find something they liked on YouTube. They came back the next day very surprised by what they found," Douglas explained to me.
"If I can talk about the underpinnings of the music, where it comes from, it has an effect beyond words because it moves you," she said. "Music and memory are so close."
Perfect home base
Douglas herself sings all genres. "I identify with the lyric first," she said. "Other than that, if I try to identify myself to people, I’ll say jazz because that’s a perfect home base. But I’ll do gospel, country, and blues, and when I started out in piano bars, it was mostly show tunes and standards-I was comfortable with that because it was the songs of my parents."
Perhaps the most teaching-driven entertainer we have among us, she added, with passion, "I want people to know that the music of their parents belongs to them, too, and it’s all tied in to the generation before that. The music belongs to all of us."
I asked Douglas how she has managed to survive and often thrive in the cabaret business for so long, a steady presence for over twenty years. "The work of an actor-singer who is not world-famous is very hard," she said. "There are lean times. But if you want it, you do it."
"I made the decision to stop working in piano bars five or six years ago, determined to make a living as a performer," she went on. "That meant saying yes to everything, which allowed me to learn and grow and work a lot, even if sometimes it was for free."
Douglas also credits Jim Caruso’s Cast Party. "When he created that ten years ago, I was there every week. There was an improvisational aspect to it, and I had the chance to meet and work with people I may not have met otherwise."
She also took part in eighteen of the storied "A Train Plays" that were the rage a few years back. Playwrights would ride the A train together and come up with a short play in the time it took to get from one end to the other. Then a composer would get on in Coney Island and write three songs on the way back. Actors would then rehearse and perform the show within 24 hours.
"That was the best theatrical experience of my life," Douglas said. "It taught me to be brave."
Last month, Douglas performed in Nebraska, this month she goes to Austin, and she has a run at The Crazy Coqs in London in February. She reflected on a time last summer when she performed on Atlantis Cruise Lines. "My husband and I were walking through Pompeii and I just looked at him and said, ’This is my job!’"
"You just stay with it," Douglas concluded. "I feel luckier every minute. I’m getting more work every year."
Natalie Douglas: truly a talent worth celebrating. Let’s give her bouquets of love at Birdland on Jan. 20th . . .
Saluting Charles Aznavour
This month, we have the rare occasion of a talented young performer from Paris bringing his cabaret show to Don’t Tell Mama. His name is Pierre de la Roche and he will be at the celebrated club on Jan. 9-11.
"I’ve never been to America," de la Roche told me. "I only know that I’m living near Washington Square and singing at 343 West 46th Street. The rest is a surprise and I love surprises!"
The show is "Salut Charles!" and will celebrate France’s own Charles Aznavour, a prolific singer, songwriter, actor, and diplomat who is still going strong at age 89. "Yes, he is still active and will release a new album this year," de la Roche assured me. "Charles Aznavour is a legend, simply a legend. In 1998, he was named Entertainer of the Century by CNN."
Pierre went on to tell me that stars such as Frank Sinatra, Julio Iglesias, Shirley Bassey, Josh Groban, Bob Dylan, Jack Jones, and Edith Piaf all sang Aznavour’s words or music. "I love after a show when someone comes to me and says ’I know this song but I didn’t know that it’s by Aznavour!’" de la Roche shared with me.
De la Roche was performing for the LGBT Strassenfest in Berlin when he was approached by Kristopher McDowell, a one-time cabaret star who now manages many singers. McDowell told de la Roche to call him should he decide to sing in New York. And so it came to be.
From McDowell, he got some names of pianists and after some research and a meeting via Skype, he hired the well-known and super-talented Mark Hartman to be his musical director. "He plays with great feeling and has great qualities for a show like this," de la Roche said.
I wondered how de la Roche could possibly cover Aznavour’s long career in an hour-long show.
"Aznavour is like champagne," de la Roche explained. "You can’t taste all the French champagne in one hour, but I will give you the best bottle!"
Let’s give this Parisian a big New York bienvenue and catch his show while it is here . . .
I’m going to stray from the cabaret path a bit here and give a shout out to the new bar and dance club, Icon, on 33rd Street in Astoria. I spent New Year’s Eve there with my pal Charles Truenski (Queens Our City Radio), and we were greeted warmly by co-owner and impresario Nick Lion. Lion is mainly a dance record producer and songwriter, but he has put his heart and glamorous touch into this mid-sized venue.
"Oprah always said your home is the most important place to spend your money, and my mother taught me the same thing," Lion told me. "No matter what happens outside, you want to be able to come in and say ’Ahhh!’ And that’s what I’ve tried to create here."
To that end, the ground-floor hotspot is tastefully decorated in gold, white, and black, with red accent colors and lighting, comfy banquettes, and glass boxes for the many dancers. And guess what? No large video screens! How retro and revolutionary at the same time!
"We need places like this," Lion said. "I want people talking to each other and having fun again. That’s what built the gay community and we need that again."
Indeed, there was a lot of merry mingling going on . . . and a lot of selfies being taken with the dancers and glam guest, nightclub icon Amanda Lepore.
Take a trip to Icon. A classy affair without the snobbery. And, I predict, a performance venue in the not too distant future. Good luck with this, Nick and company . . .
Where to go...
Rather than close with my Faves for the month, I would like to list my favorite cabaret and piano bar venues in New York and ask you to check their websites and support the rooms as we go into 2014. Live entertainment venues are being challenged as never before. Get out and have a good time!
Café Carlyle, 54 Below, Laurie Beechman Theatre, Metropolitan Room, Joe’s Pub, Don’t Tell Mama, The Duplex, Birdland, The Blue Note, B.B. King’s, Brandy’s Piano Bar, The Townhouse, Marie’s Crisis, Arthur’s Tavern, Le Poisson Rouge, Zinc Bar, Stage 72, Cornelia Street Café, Smalls Jazz Club, The Cutting Room, Iridium Jazz Club, Jazz at Lincoln Center (Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola), The Café at Broadway, The Highline Ballroom, Smoke Jazz & Supper Club, and Town Hall. And then there are the comedy clubs. I know I’ve probably left some out. Let me know and I’ll add them to my list.
In the meantime, I’ll be out and about. Until next month . . . I’ll see you over cocktails.