Cabaret review: Ben Vereen


Legendary performer Ben Vereen sang standards and songs from Broadway in his Rrazz Room show. Photos by Isak Tiner


Kick, kick, turn and SING! Ben Vereen does the cabaret thing

Toward the end of his exhilarating show at San Francisco’s gorgeous Rrazz Room, Ben Vereen was musing on the state of the world and trying to find something positive to say. He concluded that it’s not so much about our leaders but about us living good lives and taking care of each other.

“But what do I know?” he said. “I’m just some legendary star.”

Then he let loose with one of those chuckles, grinned that high-wattage Vereen grin and sang “If I Ruled the World.”

Vereen was making fun of himself…sort of. He is a legend and he knows it. He won a Tony Award in Pippin, and he’s been in shows ranging from Sweet Charity to Golden Boy to Grind to Wicked. He starred as “Chicken” George in the landmark TV series Roots, and he’s made memorable screen appearances in All That Jazz and Idlewild.

At 62, after some rocky patches involving a car accident and health problems, Vereen is back on stage and in fine form.

He’s currently touring with a tribute to Sammy Davis Jr. that requires an 18-piece orchestra, but he scaled things down for the Rrazz Room with his pianist/musical director Nelson Cole, bassist Tom Kennedy and drummer Marc Dicianni. But the thing about Vereen is that he’s a large-scale performer and brings theater-size pizzazz with him wherever he goes.

This was evident early in his 90-minute set with a medley of songs from Broadway shows he’s been in: “Corner of the Sky” from Pippin, “Aquarius” from Hair and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and the title song from Jesus Christ Superstar. He even tackled “Memory” from Cats and gave it the full-on dramatic treatment then left us with a religious spin: in the last notes as the new day was dawning, he looked up and said, “Thank you, Father, thank you.”


Decked out in a black suit with red flourishes – a silky red scarf, a red stripe down the black tie, a flash of red around the black shirt collar – Vereen looks great and sounds good. He talked about his fond memories of San Francisco doing No Place to Be Somebody at the Off Broadway Theatre and going tribal in Hair at the Orpheum.

During his tribute to Frank Sinatra (which includes a “My Way” that Vereen somehow gets away with), Vereen sang “It Was a Very Good Year” and couldn’t resist the urge to dance. But looking at the rather confined space on stage, he said: “They said there would be room to dance” and chuckled. But he managed to move. And later in the show, during the Davis tribute’s rendition of “Hey There” from The Pajama Game, Vereen danced his way through the audience.

That Davis tribute really is the centerpiece of Vereen’s show, and it’s fantastic. Vereen and Davis worked together in Golden Boy, and it’s clear Vereen has great affection and admiration for Davis during such numbers as “Once in a Lifetime,” “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” and a reconfigured “Mr. Bojangles,” complete with black bowler hat, that refers directly to Davis.

Vereen’s duets with the individual members of his band were stellar. With Dicianni using his hands instead of sticks on his drum kit, he and Vereen performed a thrilling “Misty”; with Kennedy doing extraordinary things to his upright bass, Vereen gave “My Funny Valentine” new life; and with Kennedy’s sumptuous melodic support on piano, he sang “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” that managed to be funny and affecting.

Like the seasoned performer he is, Vereen can make a cabaret feel like an intimate exchange or the Act 1 finale of a Broadway show. He’s charming, funny and intense, and he makes a strong connection with his audience. But then again, what does he know? He’s just some legendary star.


Ben Vereen will sing the national anthem at the Oakland As baseball game against the Texas Rangers on Thursday, May 7th.  Also on that day, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has also declared Thursday, May 7th, “Take the Stage for Diabetes Awareness Day” in San Francisco and awarded Vereen a mayoral proclamation.


Ben Vereen performs through May 10 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Shows are at 8 p.m. except for a special Mother’s Day show at 7 p.m. on Sunday, May 10. Tickets are $45-$50 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 866-468-3399 or visit for information.

Here’s an excerpt of Vereen performing “Magic to Do” and doing the Bob Fosse thing in Pippin (circa 1981):

Mr. Harris and the wham of Sam

Let’s get one thing out of the way right now: Sam Harris is well aware of Adam Lambert.


Harris, the big winner on the first-ever season of “Star Search” back in the ’80s, has a gorgeous, seamlessly streamlined voice with an incredible range. Lambert, the current favorite on this season of “American Idol,” has a similar instrument, a similarly theatrical style and more than a hint of Harris in every note.

“If you Google Sam Harris and Adam Lambert, you come up with thousands of Web sites,” Harris says on the phone from his Los Angeles-area home. “I’ve met Adam, and we’ve done some of the same benefits. I couldn’t be more flattered because he’s immensely talented. I find out fairly often that I’ve influenced people in some way, and I feel like I’m this young person in the middle of my prime! The other day I was at lunch, and the maître’d said to me, `I came out to LA because you inspired me to be in show business.’ I was flattered but I wanted to say, `I’m not that old!'”

For the record, Harris turns 48 next month, and he’s been in the public eye for almost 30 years, whether he was performing “God Bless the Child” in a straightjacket on an LA cabaret stage or making TV history with a soaring version of “Over the Rainbow.”

He opens Friday at San Francisco’s Rrazz Room for two late shows (10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday), and it’s a rare chance to hear Harris in an intimate setting.

“We primarily play theaters because I design my shows with a theatrical arc,” Harris says. “But I love the different environment of a club. It’s freer in a way. To do what we do with the people right there is fun. You’re quite naked. It’s just you, and I enjoy that. I didn’t used to. I liked to feel more separation because it gave me more theatrical freedom. But I love the challenge of all of us being right there. You’ve got to be real, man. They can tell if you’re not telling the truth, and as a storyteller, that’s your primary job.”

Life is good for Sam Harris these days. He and Danny Jacobsen, his partner of 15 years (and legal husband in California), are the proud parents of year-old Cooper Atticus Harris-Jacobsen.

“My greatest joy is my family,” Harris says. “Becoming a parent is the best thing that ever happened to me.”

For his San Francisco shows, Harris will be joined by longtime musical director Todd Schroeder. They’ve been picking some old favorites and working on some new tunes. Harris’ love of being a parent is evident in certain song selections such as Maury Yeston’s “New Words.”

“I have a tendency to put too much about Cooper into the show,” Harris says. “Everything I do now is affected by him. He is the great love of my life. He’s everything. But, you know those people who show you hundreds of pictures of their kids? I recognize that while I know Cooper is the most gorgeous, genius, advanced child on Earth, not everyone will want to know that.”

Schroeder and Harris have been working on a medley of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “I’m Still Here.” He’s also planning a Kurt Weill-ish arrangement of “Ain’t We Got Fun” as a reflection of the economy.

Harris has been through San Francisco many times – first on his official concert tour following his “Star Search” win when he released two albums on the Motown label. Then he played the Plush Room several times.

Of course he loves San Francisco audiences (who doesn’t?).

“Audiences there are singular,” he says. They’re family-ish. They’re involved and enthusiastic. And they laugh. I love playing San Francisco.”

Later this year, Harris may be starting on the road back to Broadway, where he was a hit in Grease (which co-starred one of his best friends, Rosie O’Donnell) and The Life. He’ll be in the pre-Broadway production of The First Wives Club at the Old Globe in San Diego. He’s playing a role that wasn’t in the movie. He’s sort of the fourth Musketeer donning disguises to help the ex-wives seek revenge on their former husbands. Rupert Holmes wrote the book and the score is by the hit-generating team of Holland-Dozier-Holland (think of any early Motown hit and they probably wrote it).

Harris also has a new album, Free, which includes an emotionally wrenching version of “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” and he’s developing a sitcom for Fox that was inspired by his foray into the world of video blogs or vlogs. Inspired by his blog-happy friend Rosie, Harris has his own channel on YouTube ( and posts counseling sessions where he answers viewers’ questions, provides helpful hints (like how to fold a T-shirt in two moves), sings a cappella, gushes about his baby and otherwise holds court in his inimitably charming way. On Fridays he even posts interviews he does with his famous friends.

One of the producers of “The Class,” a promising but ultimately canceled CBS sitcom on which Harris played a gay-acting straight guy, is helping Harris develop the show.

“I’m as engaged as ever,” Harris says. “I thoroughly love singing, acting, writing and being a storyteller. I’m still ambitious, and I’m driven because I love my work. My work doesn’t define me. It’s what I do and reflects who I am. There was a time when I was young when I wouldn’t even talk to you if you hadn’t heard me sing. If you had heard me, you might like or even love me. If you hadn’t, I wouldn’t know how to distinguish myself or express myself. But now, my work is a reflection of how I think and how I feel. After my family, my work is my great joy.”

[Set your DVRs – Sam Harris appears in the May 11 episode of “The Rules of Engagement” on CBS.]

Sam Harris appears in concert at The Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco at 10:30 p.m. Friday, May 8 and Saturday, May 9. Tickets are $35-$40 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 866-468-3399 or visit for information.

Now here’s a glimpse of SamTube, Sam Harris’ assortment of advice, performance and interviews:

Hey, Ben Folds! Please write a musical!

Pete Townshend and The Who did it. Phil Collins did it badly. Duncan Sheik did it brilliantly. Billy Joel sort of did it. And Elton John does it every other day.

Now it’s time for Ben Folds to make the leap and write a Broadway musical.

The 42-year-old Folds should be a massive pop star, up therein the pantheon with piano men Joel and John, but because the world is the way it is and the music industry is the way it is and radio is the way it is, Folds has to be content being a superstar to millions of geeks, dweebs and sensitive rockers.

Folds performed Thursday night at the Warfield in San Francisco (read Jim Harrington’s concert review here) to support Way to Normal” his third solo studio album since leaving his trio the Ben Folds Five, and the concert offered even more proof that it’s time for Folds to put his considerable songwriting skills in service of telling a story.

From the dawn of the Ben Folds Five in the mid ’90s, it has been clear that Folds has the troubadour gene. He’s a showman (just watch him bash his piano, climb on top of the piano, manipulate the piano strings and lead the audience in horn section sing-alongs) and he has a penchant for character songs.

Even his titles are littered with character names: “Julianne,” “Where’s Summer B?,” “Alice Childress,” “Uncle Walter,” “Kate,” “Steven’s Last Night in Town,” “Eddie Walker,” “Emaline,” “Tom & Mary,” “Jane,” “Annie Waits, “Zak and Sara,” “Fred Jones Part 2,” “The Ascent of Stan,” “Losing Lisa,” “Carrying Cathy,” “Gracie,” “Give Judy My Notice,” “The Secret Life of Morgan Davis,” “Dr. Yang” and “Kylie from Connecticut” to name just a few.

In that group above, Folds has even written a show tune. Just listen to “The Secret Life of Morgan Davis,” an obscure track off a CD single, and visions of lights in Times Square twinkle, and you can just imagine a guy in a top hat dancing in front of glittery show girls. Except if you listen to the lyrics, that wily Ben has written the tale of a degenerate man who spends his nights ingesting drugs, cavorting with sex workers, vomiting on himself and then slipping home in the wee hours so he can put on a tie and go into the office.

But that’s Folds in a nutshell. He’ll conform to a style only to bash it from the inside out.

Which is all the more reason he should write a musical. Reportedly Folds is collaborating with British novelist and music writer Nick Hornby on an album. That’s exciting, but they should have been the ones to turn Hornby’s High Fidelity into a Broadway musical. The version that actually opened in New York (by Tom Kitt, Amanda Green and David Lindsay-Abaire) was exactly the kind of musical that the characters in the show would make fun of and loathe. Hornby and Folds would have invented the real thing because they get how funny, emotional and snarky music can be – all at the same time.

Folds has succumbed to the Hollywood thing without much success. He contributed songs to the computer animated Over the Hedge, and neither his work, nor the movie itself, was anything more than minor. It was all so constrained, and the family friendly aspect of it removed all of Folds’ bite. He even sanitized his great satirical rocker “Rockin’ the Suburbs” for the movie, and it’s just silly (even with the vocal contributions of Folds’ friend William Shatner).

To make his debut on the Great White Way Folds doesn’t even have to start from scratch. He can take his first solo album, Rockin’ the Suburbs, and build a song cycle about people in the ‘burbs from its 12 tracks. The album contains two of Folds’ most heartfelt ballads (“Still Fighting It,” a love song to a firstborn child, and “The Luckiest,” a truly great love song) and some of his most arresting character work. Throw in some tracks from Songs for Silverman (“You to Thank,” “Jesusland”) and Way to Normal (“Cologne,” “You Don’t Know Me”) and you’ve got the basis of a really interesting show.

Billy Joel’s musical consisted of Twyla Tharp stringing songs of his together and using dance to tell a story, but that wouldn’t work as well with Folds. His songs require actors and back story and goofy intensity that’s not quite up to the grace and power of dance. Whatever show Folds eventually writes will undoubtedly be funnier than The Who’s “Tommy.”

Folds is at that point in his life and career – he’s on his fourth marriage, has two kids and can continue making records and touring for as long as he wants – where he can make some choices. In addition to the Hornby project, Folds is reportedly putting together an album of a cappella groups from around the country.

But a Broadway musical would give him an entirely new experience. He would get to invent his own version of the form and, if successful, the show will continue generating income for decades as regional and community theaters perform it well into the 21st century and possibly beyond. And what aging pop star doesn’t want a little respectable immortality?

Here’s Folds with the Western Australia Symphony Orchestra performing “Zak and Sara”:

Cabaret Review: Terese Genecco & Her Little Big Band

Here’s a recipe for a perfect Saturday night: go see a play, but make sure it gets out around 10, and then head to the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko and see Terese Genecco and her Little Big Band’s Last Call show.

I had the perfect Saturday night when I saw Shining City, a ripping Irish ghost story, at SF Playhouse, then sauntered a few blocks to see Genecco’s show.

If you don’t know Genecco, you should. She’s a pint-sized dynamo and one of the Bay Area’s more recent contributions to the cabaret world. She’s neither precious nor twee – both conditions that too often afflict cabaret folk – but rather vivacious, funny and gifted with the need to swing in a big, bold way.

Genecco and her Little Big Band (a septet of piano, bass, drums, bongos, saxophone, trumpet and trombone) are in residence late Saturday nights at the Rrazz Room (their next shows are Nov. 22, Dec. 13 and Jan. 24), and if there’s a better way to turn Saturday into Sunday, I don’t know it.

On a recent Saturday night, Genecco was an unstoppable force as she grabbed hold of songs such as ” A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” and “You’re My Thrill” and wouldn’t let go until everyone in the place was at the very least tapping a toe.

Genecco’s sharp sense of swing emanates from the sense of joy she brings to her material. She clearly loves what she’s doing, and she communicates that joy through every crisply sung note and judiciously snapped finger.

With arrangements by bassist Daniel Fabricant and hot, hot sax man Tony Malfatti, Genecco never makes a misstep. She truly catches fire on an incendiary “Come Rain or Come Shine” – highlighted by the mad bongos of Jacob Lawlor – and then outdoes herself on “Unchain My Heart.

The horns – Malfatti is joined by Max Perkoff on trombone and the amazing Rich Armstrong on trumpet – are, in every sense, a blast. Such a brassy burst of excitement could easily overwhelm a singer, but not Genecco. She feeds off the horns and their bright, blaring sensuality.

Pianist Barry Lloyd, drummer Randy Odell and bassist Fabricant also provide solid support and get into the good-time groove that Genecco initiates.

The generous Genecco aims to share her Rrazz Room roost with various guests, and last Saturday that spot was filled by Russ Lorenson (who has his formal Rrazz Room debut, Standard Time, on Sunday, Oct. 12 – visit for info), another local who should be getting more attention for his powerful pipes and keen sense of crooner-style rhythm.

Genecco reclaimed the stage with a fantastic “Drunk with Love” and even made time for a ballad (Maria Gentile’s aching, emotionally complex “If I Was a Boy”) before surrendering to the beguiling blare of the show-ending “St. James Infirmary” and “Kansas City.”

It’s a gloomy world out there, but with Terese Genecco and her Little Big Band in the house, it’s a whole lot brighter.

Terese Genecco and her Little Big Band are in residence at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco, at 10:30 p.m. Nov. 22, Dec. 13 and Jan. 24. Call 866-468-3399 or visit or

The brilliance, literally, of Dolly Parton

There’s no getting around the fact that for more than 40 years now, Dolly Parton has been a bright light of show business. She quickly transcended her beginnings on country radio and corny country TV shows to become a pop icon, movie star and savvy businesswoman.

She’s one of the most recognizable women in the world, and the curious thing is that under all that hair, makeup, glitz and God-given curviness, Parton is an extraordinary talent. Her voice is so unique it’s immediately recognizable and difficult to imitate, and her songwriting skill – which is criminally underrated – will eventually have its own section in the Great American Songbook.

The 62-year-old Parton was in the Bay Area Tuesday night at the Greek Theatre on the UC Berkeley campus as part of her Backwoods Barbie tour. As amazing as she was – and boy howdy was she amazing – I was disappointed she didn’t mention the latest feather in her cap: Broadway composer.

One of Parton’s biggest movie and musical hits, 9 to 5, is heading to Broadway. In addition to the title song, she has written about 20 new songs for the show, which is directed by Joe Mantello of Wicked fame. The new musical has its world premiere Sept. 3 through Oct. 19 at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles before heading to Broadway’s Marriott Marquis Theatre. You can get tickets to the L.A. run here. Check out the site for the Broadway run here. Alison Janney heads the cast in the role played on film by Lily Tomlin.

Parton has always had a flair for the theatrical, so it’s not at all surprising she’s finally made her way to musical theater. And reports from rehearsals in L.A. are that Parton is so enthused about the project she shows up early and stays late whenever she can.

But rehearsing a Broadway show must be difficult when you’re taking your own show on the road.

Sadly, the crowd at the 8,500-seat Greek was not at capacity. Reports are that it was around 50 percent – a disappointing turnout for a living legend – but that was a wildly enthusiastic 50 percent, a fact Parton acknowledged when she said there may have been more people at the L.A. shows a few nights previous, but they weren’t as loud, as welcoming or as attractive.

Even before much of the crowd had taken its seats, indeed before the clock had even struck 8, Parton was rarin’ to go with “Two Doors Down,” which led directly into one of her rowdy pop-honky tonkers, “Why’d You Come In Here Lookin’ Like That?”

In between songs, while courteously taking flowers from fans and chatting with some kids in the audience (who know her as godmother to Miley Cyrus aka Hannah Montana), Parton showed off her glam high heels to the front few rows and, as a result of her short, spangly gold skirt, revealed more than she wanted. “Ohhh,” she squealed. “I think I just showed him the box office!”

Whether singing one of her classics (“Jolene”) or covering someone else’s (John Denver’s revised “Thank God I’m a Country Girl”), Parton is an extraordinary performer with boundless energy. I wasn’t always convinced the vocals were entirely live, but a girl does what she needs to do, and the Teleprompters on each side of the stage ensured there would be no lyrical gaffs.

From the spirited new album she performed a cover of Fine Young Cannibals’ “Drives Me Crazy” (complete with hoedown section) and the title track, which features the lyric: “I might look artificial but where it counts I’m real.”

Playing the dulcimer she sang “Shattered Image,” then accompanied herself on the autoharp for a touching version of “Coat of Many Colors.” Then she picked up the penny whistle for the Celtic-tinged “Only Dreamin’.” Act 1 ended in blaze of gospel glory with “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” bookending a mega-medley of gospel tunes.

Act 2 brought a sassy red dress and some of the most impressive showmanship I’ve seen on a stage. After a rousing “Baby I’m Burning,” Parton tore through two songs from the new album – the inspirational and funny “Better Get to Livin'” complete with video starring Amy Sedaris and the forgettable but fun “Shinola” – and then got down to some serious vocals.

Surrounded by the seven male members of her band, she sang an a cappella version of “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind,” and the already Dolly-crazy audience went ballistic. She stayed on the a cappella track with her two female backup singers for a chilling, thrilling “Little Sparrow” that made you long for an entire Parton concert with no band at all.

Then came the hit parade: “Here You Come Again,” “Islands in the Stream” (with Richard Dennison), “9 to 5” (and no mention of the Broadway show) and, of course, “I Will Always Love You.”

Because of time restrictions at the Greek (city noise ordinances or some such), Parton trimmed the piano version of “The Grass Is Blue” she usually does, but she did end with her fiery new song “Jesus and Gravity.”

At one point early in the show, as the sun was setting, the sky turned a soft shade of pink over the stage as if to underscore the point that one of the best places in the universe is in the audience for a Dolly Parton show.

Here’s a pirated video from Parton’s European tour last month of “Little Sparrow.” The sound’s not perfect, but you’ll get the idea.

Idina Menzel flying into SF

A Tony Award-winner for Wicked (and we all know it isn’t easy being green), Idina Menzel is bringing her concert tour to the Bay Area.

The former Rent star, who just released a major label album called I Stand, will play the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre on Aug. 14.

Though touring to support her new disc, Menzel (who appeared on big screens, but did not sing in Disney’s Enchanted), will not disappoint fans who want to hear her sing some of her famous show tunes. As Menzel told “It’s not such a hard stretch because the shows I’ve been in are contemporary. I take them out of their context and unplug them a little bit and strip them down and put them more into the context of my show. They seem to work really well, and they’re not changed so much that die-hard theatre fans would be disappointed, I don’t think. I feel like I’m getting a good response. So that’s really nice for me, to kind of join all my worlds together, and it doesn’t feel like it’s so erratic. It feels cohesive, and it feels like all one artist.”

For information visit

k.d. lang gives good koncert

This isn’t a theater item, but I wanted to share with you a superb concert experience I had Tuesday night at the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, where k.d. lang brought her Watershed tour promoting her new album of the same name.

I’ve see lang a number of times in concert, but I have never seen her so relaxed or in such strong, beautiful voice. She has clearly arrived at a good spot in her life, both personally and professionally. Her confidence and warmth are palpable, and she obviously takes great pride in her new album (on the Nonesuch label), for which she served as producer for the first time. She co-wrote all the songs on the disc, which is her strongest collection of original material since 1992’s Ingenue.

The evening got off to a surprising start with the opening act, solo pianist Dustin O’Halloran, whose offbeat charm set the tone for his lovely keyboard work — sort of a blend of New Age and classical but entirely lacking in pretension.

That mellowed the sold-out crowd quite a bit, though lang’s entrance — barefoot as usual — revved things up. With her five-man band solidly behind her, lang launched into the new album with “Upstream.” She would go on to perform the album in its entirety, and the live versions were even better than the album versions — more lived in, more passionate.

From her previous album, the superb Hymns of the 49th Parallel (easily lang’s best overall album, also on the Nonesuch label), lang sang Neil Young’s “Helpless” and literally brought the house down with Jane Siberry’s haunting and hopeful “The Valley” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” The latter two performances each earned a standing ovation, and though “Hallelujah” verges on the overexposed these days (hello, “American Idol”), lang’s full-throated, dramatic version is the best this side of Jeff Buckley.

With such an impressive back catalogue from which to choose, it was interesting to see what oldies lang would perform. She surprised and deligthed with “Wash Me Clean” from Ingenue, “Western Stars” from Shadowland and “Smoke Dreams” from drag.

Of course she performed her greatest (and only real) hit, “Constant Craving,” but like so many requisite performances, lang has allowed the song to evolve and take on new life while still pleasing the fans.

For her first encore, she used an old-timey microphone and an acoustic setting to perform an early song, the rockabilly “Pay Dirt,” then accompanied herself on the banjo for “Jealous Dog” from the new album. “I’ve recently taken up the banjo,” lang said. “I realized it’s a chick magnet.”

Her final song of the evening, from the new album, was her nod to being a “good Buddhist.” She described “Shadow and the Frame” as an “existentialist lullabye,” and so it is.

“And so illusive
this life we live
sad and dull
but beautiful

So I find myself
and what I became
having nowhere else
to lay the blame

The shadow and the frame
so perfectly remain

The shadow and the frame
are indeed the same.”

Visit k.d. lang’s official Web site here or here.

Here’s a glimpse of lang and the new album:

More with Manilow

For my full interview with Barry Manilow see below or click here.

In our conversation, he talked about being a guest coach on “American Idol”: “Most young people sing to their eyelids,” he said. “The yclose their eyes and show their voice off. I’ve never been able to do that. I’ve always needed a theatrical situation in my imagination. I think that’s what the audience is getting. They know something is happening onstage. They don’t know what or why they’re being sucked in when I sing “Somewhere Down the Road” or “When October Goes.” They know I’m not singing to my eyelids, that’s for sure. If more pop singers approached their music and performance like that, they might have a longer career.

His 2001 concept album “Here at the Mayflower” was all about a New York apartment building and its various inhabitants. Some have suggested the album might make a good stage musical. Manilow’s response: “I’d be the first person to say, `Sure, go do it.’ But I wouldn’t do it. I didn’t write it for the stage. When you write a stage musical, that’s not the way you do it. Musicals have a separate batch of rules from albums. But if someone was interested, I’d say do it.”

After he “drops these one-nighters,” as he puts it, which means finishing the series of concerts he’s donig around the country (like the one Feb. 15 in San Jose), Manilow will finish recording his “Greatest Songs of the ’80s” album with producer Clive Davis, and he’ll head back to the Las Vegas Hilton, where his Music and Passion show is a big hit. He says the show will be re-vamped after the summer. “Vegas has been thrilling,” he said. “It’s been a big learning experience. After the fans stopped coming after the first six months, they were just people. Some of them didnt’ know what the heck they were doing there. I really love it. You have to really work. If you get a standing ovation there, they really mean it. When we re-vamp the show, it will be more hit oriented. We wound up promoting the `Decades’ albums, and the audiences loved it, but it got in the way of my own music. It’ll be more hits in the fall.”

On that upcoming ’80s album: “We’ve started putting some songs down. And you know, I think I’m OK with them. I thought my style of music, my voice, would have ended in the ’70s. I think I can do these songs.”

Barry Manilow: He came and he gave without taking

It’s a miracle that even now, Barry Manilow is writing the songs that make, if not the whole world, at least a fair portion of it sing. Could it be magic?

Magic had nothing to do with it. Try hard work, dogged persistence and thousands of “Fanilows’ who can’t smile without him.

Yes, Barry Manilow is still going strong, more than 30 years since his first hit, “Mandy,” unveiled the Manilow musical formula: big, heart-on-the-sleeve ballads sung with utmost sincerity and some good, old-fashioned show-biz brio.

Just when you think the time has finally come for Manilow to fade into pop history, he shows up with a surprise hit album, an appearance on “American Idol” or “Dancing with the Stars” or a long-running hit show in Vegas.

The man never rests. He’s 61 and riding yet another crest of popularity from his three “Greatest Songs of…” albums that have him warbling tunes from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. His show at the Las Vegas Hilton, Music and Passion, has just been extended for another year. He has two DVD sets out — a concert promoting the ’70s album (seen last month on PBS) and a box set of his ’70s and ’80s TV specials.

Though his concert tours have been curtailed by the Vegas show, Manilow is doing a few one-night stops around the country, and he’ll make a rare Bay Area performance Feb. 15 at the HP Pavilion in San Jose.

On the road, shuttling from one gig to another, Manilow checks in by phone and says that although his last Bay Area appearance was nearly 10 years ago (also in San Jose), he loves the area.

“I remember playing there in 1973,” he says. “It was a small nightclub. Bette (Midler) had just been there…the Boarding House. It was sort of a hippie nightclub. I got my first taste of the Bay Area audience there, and these people are smart. They don’t suffer fools gladly. I’ve gotten away with a lot of being cute and telling cornball jokes. Can’t do that up there. They want real music, and I have the real music. I didn’t need to do anything but be truthful and make music I believed in.”

Broadway baby

Manilow has been the butt of many a joke. When you’re as popular as he is — last year he was honored for career album sales of more than 75 million copies worldwide — you’re going to peeve the purists.

Still, Manilow has been able to keep his sense of humor and his perspective. He has done his own thing and made forays into jazz (“2 a.m. Paradise Cafe”), show tunes (“Show Stoppers”) and standards (“Manilow Sings Sinatra”). He’s even written two musicals. More on that in a minute.

Whatever music he’s working on — and this is likely a key to his success — Manilow communicates emotion clearly and cleanly. He’s a born musical storyteller.

“I try to sing as if I’m continuing talking,” he says. “I try to make the audience not know the difference between when I finish talking and when I begin to sing. Then, what I do, in my lyrics when I perform, I break down every lyric as if I were breaking down a scene in a play. I create the situation for myself in my imagination. I create a partner who I’m singing to. I know whether I’m in an apartment with my father or grandfather or out in a field with friends. It’s rare anyone cares to do that in pop music.”

Manilow’s technique is much more common in theater, which is something he fully realizes, having been a musical theater fan since his childhood days in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

“My first records were cast albums starting with Guys and Dolls, to Finian’s Rainbow to Gypsy and all the great shows,” he recalls. “I fell in love with songs that told stories and songs that had great situations in them and great melodies. Then I found myself onstage singing pop songs, and I was not interested in just standing there and singing. The only way to go, to keep myself sane, was to find situations I could find myself truthful in, even though they were relatively simple lyrics in a pop song. `I Can’t Smile Without You’ or `I Write the Songs’ or any of the songs I’ve had hits with, they are not Sondheim lyrics, but I treat them as if they are.”

Scared again

Raised on show tunes, Manilow, not surprisingly, has tried his hand at writing a musical. His first effort was an offshoot of his hit song “Copacabana (At the Copa),” which ran in London and toured the U.S. (with a stop in San Jose).

With Bruce Sussman, Manilow also wrote Harmony, an original musical about the Comedian Harmonists, a German singing group popular in the 1920s and ’30s during the rise of the Nazi regime.

The show had its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse in 1997, and plans for Broadway were off, then on, then off again. It was a bruising experience for Manilow.

“One of my goals before I croak is to see Harmony produced properly,” Manilow says. “I’m not involved in producing it anymore — that killed me last time — but there are two respected producers who are interested in doing the show. Who knows? In the next year, you might see `Harmony’ in a full-page ad somewhere. As of now, I had to step back and put my defenses up again. It hurt too bad.”

But Manilow has not soured on the idea of creating a musical. The fun, he says, is in the creation and in putting all the elements together.

“Then it turns to money,” he adds, “and the whole thing falls apart. But the creative part is so addictive, so thrilling and so satisfying. After you get past the insanity, everyone goes back. I have loads of composer-writer friends all over Broadway with the same scars I’ve got, and they always go back.”

One of the hardest working men in show business, Manilow claims that the best vacation for him is in front of his keyboard writing songs.

“I try my best,” he says. “I chain myself to a chaise lounge, grease myself up like a tuna fish, sit there and try to read a book. But I can’t do it. I’m much happier in front of my keyboard.”

Manilow is back in talks with Clive Davis, his longtime producer, about a fourth “decade” CD: the ’80s. And he’s writing another concept album similar to 2001’s “Here at the Mayflower,” but with more of a rock bent.

“Right now, believe it or not, I’m studying pop-rock bands like Nickelback and The Fray,” Manilow says. “There’s a bunch of talented young people in that world. This new album has some edge to it, and I’m trying to figure out what’s going on out there, and what’s going on is very exciting. I need to scare myself again. This rock ‘n’ roll world is scaring me. I don’t know whether I can do it.”

Here’s Manilow singing his “Weekend in New England” with a pre-Oscar Jennifer Hudson:

Review: Wesla Whitfield

With the new year come changes. On New Year’s Eve, Bay Area cabaret veteran Wesla Whitfield wil ring in 2008 with fans and revelers at San Francisco’s Empire Plush Room.

She’s in the midst of her record-breaking 27th gig at the venerable cabaret — a wonderfully intimate boite with a gorgeous mariner’s compass stained-glass ceiling — and it will also be her last.

The Empire Plush Room in the York Hotel, which began life as an honest-to-goodness speakeasy, will close Feb. 2. The folks at Rrazz Productions, who book the room, are opening a new space, the Rrazz Room, in San Francisco’s Hotel Nikko. That space opens later in February with another Bay Area cabaret stalwart, Paula West.

Whitfield’s farewell to the Plush actually has two titles — the result of an administrative mix-up. One is poignant: “The Last Dance.” The other is more hopeful: “The Best Is Yet to Come.”

Either way, the good news is that Whitfield, accompanied as ever by her husband/pianist/arranger Mike Greensill, bassist John Wiitala and drummer Vince Lateano, sings both of the songs that inspired the show’s titles.

It’s always good news when Whitfield sings. That’s just the simple truth. Her voice is supple and sweet, sharp and expressive, crystalline and glorious.

In fact, the supply of superlatives sputters when it comes to Whitfield, whose collaboration with Greensill has to be one of the music world’s greatest pairings.

He gives her flawless musical support and the kind of arrangements that allow her to be the absolute best interpreter of melody and lyric she can be.

The new show, which opened last week and feels painfully short at only 70 minutes, finds the 60-year-old Whitfield in a playful mood.

Those rip-your-heart-out ballads she’s so fond of are banished in favor of songs like the show opener, “Look for the Silver Lining” (slowed down to a ballad tempo, which somehow makes it even more hopeful), and chipper love songs like “Thou Swell,” “It’s Fate, Baby” and “Nobody Else But Me.”

She’s also spending time singing about the moon — probably because her new CD (her 18th with Greensill) is just out, and it contains three songs involving the Earth’s most romantic satellite.

“Message from the Man in the Moon,” the new CD’s title track, is a background number from the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races, and it’s charming, as is “Moonlight Saving Time.”

Jimmy Webb’s “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress,” one of the show’s few contemporary tunes, turns out to be the darkest song of the evening. It’s about reaching a moment of maturity when certain hopes and dreams, never realized, are relinquished. Whitfield’s full-bodied vocals, and Greensill’s delicate arrangement, make the song shimmer.

Also on the darker side, but imbued with hope, is “You Must Believe in Spring” by Michel Legrand and Alan and Marilyn Bergman, a song about life’s cycle of renewal.

Rounding out the set are lovestruck gems such as “The Way You Look Tonight,” “My Ideal” and “Photographs.” Whitfield also throws the spotlight to Greensill mid-show for one of his own compositions: “Waltz for Wesla,” a beautiful tribute to his wife.

Whitfield and her musicians bring a glorious sense of play to their work, and it matches their impeccable artistry. They actually seem to be listening to and enjoying one another, and their affection for the music and each other is infectious.

The Empire Plush Room may be ending its reign as the Bay Area’s premiere cabaret, but as long as there are performers of Whitfield’s caliber — and they’re out there — the local scene will survive, and with any luck, thrive in years to come.

Wesla Whitfield’s “The Last Dance” continues through Jan. 20 at The Empire Plush Room in the York Hotel, 940 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$42.50, plus two-drink minimum
Call 866-468-3369 or visit