So, I've Heard.... Nights at Don't Tell Mama

by Rob Lester

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday November 7, 2019

So, I've heard plenty of music lately at Don't Tell Mama, that venerable venue on West 46th Street, also known as Manhattan's Restaurant Row. Its offerings range from a cabaret who's-who to the "Who??!???!" known mostly to their friends and family, but trying out the musical waters, hoping not to drown. Much of what I waded in recently went swimmingly.

Cabaret has lots to offer, so let's dive in. Absence makes the heartfelt singers glow fondly in the hearts of admirers. The heart felt good to again hail the hale and hearty heartfelt Julie Reyburn's re-emergence. A strong and strongly emotional vocalist, who used to be around fairly regularly for years, has been on the absentee list for far too long. She's back and her return's royal reception resounded with well-deserved cheers of appreciation for her talent and integrity. (You can join or rejoin her fan club at this night club on November 7 and in December on the 15th and 17th.)

An unapologetically feisty feminist fighter, her commitment to causes, informed by those (kin and others) upon whose shoulders she gratefully stands, earns her the power to convincingly own the climactic anthem "I Am Woman." Hear her roar. It would be clichť, presumptive, or even silly resuscitated by practically anyone else, but it works triumphantly here. "Anywhere We Are" is the name of the radiant Reyburn's well-thought-out outing and where SHE is — well, it's right back on top. The set list includes a generous amount of Stephen Sondheim numbers that accentuate the Reyburn acting chops and plenty showcasing her powerful pipes, but always at the service of the material. This is exciting, gripping stuff: steely yet showing volumes of vulnerability. A big bow to director Billie Roe, herself a smart, risk-taking performer. Joining her to good advantage are bassist Ritt Henn, David Ballard (flute and some back-up vocals), and her super-simpatico musical director/pianist of yore, Mark Janas.

Mr. Janas also presides regularly at the keyboard at The Salon Open Mic, recently relocated to the same venue for soirees on some Sundays. There are pre-announced optional themes to suggest song possibilities for the veteran, the newbie, the hobbyist/student, and so their final October gathering was a happy Halloween scene. Thus, some came costumed with glittery dresses, glam make-up, flowing wigs, girly gowns, witch wardrobe. But enough about the men! The merry mixed bag (did I mention that it's an open mic?) had its tricks and treats and little candies on the tables and many of its regular attendees and some new faces (or are they regulars whose make-up make them look "new"?). While the holiday cued some scary stuff that would be otherwise unlikely — a "killer" number from "Carrie: The Musical," the lament of Dracula's gal pal, and the witch's warning from "Into the Woods," the latter by the welcoming producer/ FTBRW Tanya Moberly (that stands for Force To Be Reckoned With), there were also cabaret standbys from the songbooks of Noel Coward and Kander & Ebb, with the title song from the score of "Cabaret," which, after all, also includes the song that gives Don't Tell Mama its own name.

Going back to the metaphor of the "waters" of cabaret, I'm always happy to bathe in the sound of Josephine Sanges'truly glorious voice. When she began in this genre, a "convert" redirected from religious music, she was somewhat tentatively dipping her toes in these waters — but now she's fully immersed, connecting to both lyrics and audience. Her joy and amazing grace remain, as do splendid intonation and vocal flexibility with her able pianist/arranger John M. Cook. And this time she shared the vocal spotlight with eager Eugene Ebner. At times it seemed they were addicted to medleys, jamming in lots of choices, like a MixMaster blender turned on a bit too high, just for the frenzied fun of combining semi-similar songs, as was the style in the heyday of TV variety shows. Their duets bookended the endeavor, but in between, it was taking turns with solos, with a patchwork feel, with many famous musical "warhorses" trotted out.

Josephine's choices included repeats of successes from her past shows honoring Harold Arlen and Ann Hampton Callaway, along with some numbers newer to her repertoire. The able Ebner voice can go big and declamatory, but was most effective when scaled down to the direct, more intimate scale that is the traditional essence of cabaret singing, and found in a non-standard —thanks to his fondness for John Denver's work in the moment that rang true more than anything. Still, the anthemic "Love Changes Everything" had integrity, too. This newer-to-the-"waters" performer would be well advised to avoid playing to his personal acquaintances in the crowd with the "those of you who know me know that..." comments. His dwelling on his fondness for "twirling," followed by bringing up audience members to the stage to spin themselves around with a kind of hokey hokey-pokey felt silly and anti-climactic to me. And I felt the same about his flamboyant gay-specific re-tooling of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "I Enjoy Being a Girl" to replace that last word with "twirl," although it made some folks giggle. Patter for both could cool it on the mutual admiration society-gushing and make way for something more meaningful. Their best moments were so effective that one wanted more hitting bull's eyes. I'm guessing they'll do some shaping after this first New York outing, and they'll be back on November 24.

Also at the venue recently in what she claims will be her last cabaret act was a familiar face from open mics, Barbara Malley, marking her 85th (!) birthday. The likeable lady with comedic flair, still busy auditioning, acting, and doing commercials, has a refreshing perspective on life (with prior incarnations as a therapist, schoolteacher, wife, and — wait for it--- nun), focused some of her attention on life in the Big Apple, juicy or otherwise. With singing guests joining her birthday bash, musical direction by Matthew Martin Ward (another regular at Salon), and directed by Jay Rogers (who also counts guiding the monthly rambunctious "Ricky Ritzel's Broadway" series and the returning-in-December delightful Michael Kirk Lane among his assignments), the senior celebrant was buoyant and rather unflappable in her show "Feelin' Groovy." While it wasn't all smooth roads or a show as tight as a drum (drums by the fine Don Kelly), reaching one's mid-80s is no easy feat, and Barbara Malley is known to land on her feet.

Speaking of singers named Barbara taking an October night at Don't Tell Mama, to sing bits of the grove of "Feelin' Groovy" among their selections, the most impactful act I have seen in recent memory belonged to Barbara Brussell. And it was frustrating — due to the lamentable fact that this brave and quirky songstress "deserted" her many longtime NYC fans too many years ago to return to her native California. But, blessedly, that brash and bubbly Brussell bounced back to Manhattan for a truly triumphant night. You would think that a very, very personal examination of her relationship with her mother, who passed away 30 years ago, would be the most self-indulgent TMI "cabaret as psychotherapy" navel-gazing ever. Or at least seem like ancient history too dusty to reinvigorate. Wrong again! Boy oh boy, did she zap us back to her past to share her mixed emotions on a fascinating, raw, real roller coaster ride. With exquisite and deft, in-the-moment piano partnering by top-drawer veteran Christopher Denny, everything worked, including between-song moments where the very human femme fatalistic lost her place and flipped through notes. Enveloped in her personal pack of songs from the 1960s, she illuminated the era in which she (presumably precociously) she came of age. Her on-target facial expressions and turns of phrase turn time travel from wallowing in nostalgic to wonder and nuance-filled explorations of lyrics. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" becomes a balm and a plea. Her "How Could I Ever Know" from "The Secret Garden" is cathartic. Barbara Brussell, not so incidentally, is hilariously funny with a well-timed zing in each of the detail-specific anecdotes that dote on Mother Mae's foibles or heroics or both. There are encounters with legendary people who crossed their path, too ---even John Lennon ---but nobody comes to life as three-dimensionally as her parent. Fondness, frustration, and forgiveness are all palpable.

A night out when one can rightfully expect sufficient satisfaction with "just" good songs and good performers can deliver much more. Or, so I've heard.

For this venue's full calendar, see visit the Don't Tell Mama website

ROB LESTER returns to Edge in 2019 after several years of being otherwise occupied writing and directing musical theatre shows, working as a dramaturg, arts consultant, and contributing articles and reviews to various outlets. His long-running "Sound Advice" column covering cast albums and vocal CDs has been running regularly at for almost 15 years.