Sam Harris aims for Jolson & ‘Reclamation’

First, two issues that need addressing:
– Why isn’t Sam Harris performing his new gay marriage anthem “My Reclamation” at San Francisco’s Gay Pride celebration? It’s a beautiful, moving ode to love and equal rights — part defiant manifesto, part gorgeous ballad. So far, Harris is not slated to appear on any Gay Pride stage, and that seems, to say the least, like a missed opportunity.
Sam Harris1 – Why isn’t “Glee”mastermind Ryan Murphy begging Sam Harris to play one of Rachel’s (Lea Michelle) two dads? It’s such a brilliant no brainer. Can you just imagine the Harris/Michelle power duets? A show queen’s mind fairly boggles.

We’re thinking about Sam Harris because the big-voiced, Tony-nominated performer is headed back to San Francisco’s Rrazz Room, where he triumphed in a last-minute, late-night about a year ago. It just so happens that Harris’ gig coincides with all the Gay Pride revelry, which can hardly be accidental. In addition to his new song, Harris’ life is practically a paean to the fully integrated, 21st century gay life. He and his husband, Danny, are busy raising their 2-year-old son, Cooper, who after a recent trip to the theater (the child’s first) to see Sesame Street Live, told his dads, “Cooper up there, sing, dance with Cookie Monster.” You could hardly expect less from the spawn of Harris.

“We don’t watch much TV in our house, but I do go to YouTube and show him things like Donald O’Connor doing `Make ’em Laugh,'” Harris says on the phone from his Los Angeles home. “My favorite words from his mouth are, `More Gene Kelly! More Gene Kelly!’ The fact that he’s been backstage when I’m performing or on stage during sound checks — he’s been exposed to show biz. I mean come on, Liza Minnelli (Harris’ good friend) is in his life. It’s inevitable he’s going to be drawn to this environment. But we’re not enrolling him in tap class just yet. He’s into garbage trucks, Elmo, Cookie Monster and playing with balls. He’s a little scrapper.”

The 49-year-old Harris could be a described as a scrapper himself. Ever since winning that first big singing contest (on a little pre-“American Idol” show we used to call “Star Search”), Harris has made a living being an old-fashioned entertainer in a new-fangled world. He’s done albums, Broadway, TV sitcoms and the concert circuit. He’s frank and funny, and full of energy — that much you can see on his regular YouTube posts. Then there’s that voice, a Streisand-esque marvel that soars to unbelievable heights even as it plumbs emotional depths.

Sam Harris2In addition to promoting his “My Reclamation” single, Harris is working on a couple of projects. The big one is something he started working on years ago: a stage biography of Al Jolson, a heart-on-his-sleeve, voices-in-the-rafters entertainer who shares entertainer DNA with Harris.

“This show is meaty and dark and gritty and fat and complicated and really the best part for a man ever, ever, ever,” Harris explains. “It’s about somebody whose first love was the stage. It deals with his relationship with his father and with Ruby Keeler. It’s the inside of this darkly megalomaniacal man who was like a child, kind of a schmuck and then very kind at other times.”

Harris, obviously enamored of the part, goes so far as to call it “the Mama Rose of men’s roles.” The musical, which has been called Let Me Sing and Jolie features a book by Sherman Yellen and music and lyrics by Will Holt (the show also incorporates Jolson’s biggest songs and standards of the day).

“It’s interesting because I did an incarnation of this 10 years ago, and it almost went to Broadway,” Harris recalls. “We had costume fittings and had an out-of-town theater in Boston, but the financing dropped out in an afternoon. But I realized recently that at this time in my life, I’m so much more ready and prepared and right for it than I would have been then. It’s my goal to look at everything that way: work hard toward a goal and go where the universe takes you. I think that now the show’s chances for success are much greater.”

The other project is still a hush-hush TV project. “It’s getting a lot of heat,” Harris says. “I’ll hopefully be able to talk about it soon. It not only satisfies me creatively but also satisfies the obligation to my philosophy, which is about paying it forward.”


Sam Harris in concert, June 23-27 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Call 866 468-3399 or visit

Cabaret classic: A valentine to Paula West

Paula West 2

Paula West is going to do things to you in the dark, and you’re going to like it.

Now that she can actually be considered a veteran of the San Francisco cabaret scene, West is letting loose in her new show at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, and man does it feel good.

Backed by the George Mesterhazy Quartet, a jaunty West takes the stage and in short order she struts, she makes friends, and she romances in the dark. In her opening number, she funkifies “Dark Town Strutter’s Ball” to the point that a truly golden oldie sounds like the hippest thing going. Then she bends Bob Dylan’s “All I Really Want to Do” into a fetching reggae pulse (and even makes it sound a little Cole Porter-ish). It turns out those turns are merely a warmup for the near-nuclear explosion of “Romance in the Dark,” a 1940s tease made famous by Lil Green.

Bold and sexy, “Romance in the Dark” gives West the perfect opportunity to show off just why she’s so incredibly good. The song caresses and punches. It slaps and tickles, if you will. And West imbues the song with warmth that turns into heat and sass that turns into sensuality.
Paula West 1

After that opening trio, can I just say that the Great Recession is officially over, and Paula West is the first step toward recovery – at least toward recovering a glimmer of unadulterated joy in these dark winter months. After the momentum of “Darktown Strutter’s” and Dylan followed by the climax of “Romance,” there’s no way West can follow up with anything but Cole Porter. “Nobody’s Chasing Me,” with its lounge-y melody and clever lyrics, serves as a between-courses palate cleanser, and the rest of the show is a nutritious feast.

West is pulling tunes from all over the place – New Orleans for “Iko Iko,” Tin Pan Alley for Hoagy Carmichael’s delicious “Bread and Gravy, mid-’60s Dylan again with a fantastic “Maggie’s Farm” – and she delivers them all with shifting colors and a voice as supple as it is strong.

For the evening’s wrenching ballad, she soars through “Where Flamingos Fly,” an obscure tune recorded by Peggy Lee and Helen Merrill that involves a criminal lover making a quick getaway. And she winds down with a swingin’ “Have You Met Sir Jones,” “My Romance” and “The Music Goes Round and Round.” To wrap up this close-to-perfect cabaret evening, she hauls out her big belt notes to wail on Porter’s “I’m in Love Again.” West’s exuberance is barely contained, and her opening-night audience felt exactly the same way. They demanded a second encore, and West obliged, offering “The Snake,” her ssssssinfully biting signature tune.

Paula West just gets better and better. She has exited the realm of wonderful cabaret singers and entered the pantheon of greatness. She’s at the Rrazz Room for the next month and a half. Treat yourself and see her – at least once. They just don’t make ’em like this anymore.


Paula West continues at the Rrazz Room through March 14. Tickets are $35-$45 plus a two-drink minimum. The Hotel Nikko is at 222 Mason St. Visit for information.

Now here’s a treat. Paula sings “Like a Rolling Stone” with the George Mesterhazy Quartet.

Ballet and belts: Smuin Ballet and Sam Harris

It was a perfect Friday-night cultural double feature: opening night of Smuin Ballet’s spring season at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and then a quick dash to the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko for Sam Harris’ late night cabaret gig.


I’m no dance critic, so I won’t even try to analyze the three pieces of Smuin’s highly enjoyable spring season, but I will share what I loved. I fully expected to enjoy St. Louis Woman: A Blues Ballet, the last narrative ballet Michael Smuin completed before his death two years ago. Originally conceived for the Dance Theatre of Harlem, this dance version of the 1946 Broadway musical by Harold Arlen (music), Johnny Mercer (lyrics) and writers Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen was part of Berkeley’s Cal Performances season in 2004.

This version uses the same Tony Walton set and Willa Kim costumes (both hot and gorgeous) but seemed shorter. It uses a recorded soundtrack of Arlen’s irresistible music and the great Arlen-Mercer songs such as “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home,” “Cakewalk Your Lady,” “Ridin’ on the Moon” and “It’s a Woman’s Prerogative.”

I have to admit it’s a little weird to see a story that’s supposed to be performed by an all African-American cast inhabited by a predominantly white cast. But the dancing is flashy and fun, full of Broadway pizzazz and flash.

The real stand-out of the night for me is the second piece, Bouquet, which Smuin choreographed to the music of Shostakovich. Romantic and achingly beautiful, the piece begins with a pas de quatre (Erin Yarbrough-Stewart, Darren Anderson, Ryan Camou and Shannon Hurlburt) and ends with a pas de deux by Brooke Reynolds and Aaron Thayer that is an exquisite expression of love through dance.

For information about the Smuin season tour, visit

It’s a shame that Sam Harris is only in town for two late shows (his second is tonight, Saturday, May 9) at the Rrazz Room. He deserves a much longer run, but he’s got a year-old baby and a busy career developing sitcoms and getting ready to star in a Broadway-bound musical (The First Wives Club). We’ll take what we can get.

Harris is as much a comedian as he is a singer. He compared the Rrazz Room to his own living room and said of his boyfriend (now husband) of 14 years, Danny Jacobsen, that they have been five of the best years of his life, not consecutive. “When we got married I didn’t know what true love was. And now it’s too late.” Bad dum bum.

Even though the late show was “so past my bedtime – I’m serious” Harris and his extraordinary pianist/musical director Todd Schroeder put on a remarkably good and varied show, which opened with U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for,” given the full gospel treatment, merged with Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here” re-written with lyric references to Harris’ career, his sobriety, his family, etc. It might be noted that Cher opened her interminable farewell tour with “I Still Haven’t Found…” but that didn’t even seem like the same song Harris sang.

With his big voice, crazy range and complete comfort on stage, Harris was a delight from beginning to end, whether he was chiding Rrazz management for not providing him with a towel (he borrowed one from a gentleman in the front row who just happened to have his gym bag – ah, San Francisco!) or forgetting the lyrics to his intensely emotional version of “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”

Song choices were all over the place, from Harold Arlen’s 1930s ode to ganja in “The Wail of the Reefer Man” to the James Taylor-Carly Simon version of “Mockingbird” song full throttle with Schroeder to a moving version of Maury Yeston’s tender “New Words.” Harris was practically a one-man Broadway show on the amped-up “Ain’t We Got Fun,” an aggressively cynical take on the Depression-happy tune, which Schroeder pounded through with bravura ferocity.

A gimmick purporting to take audience suggestions for show tunes resulted in an aborted “Ease on Down the Road” and a full-throttle “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and a jazzy “My Favorite Things.”

Harris pulled out all the vocal/emotional stops on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Over the Rainbow” before closing the show with a gentle “In My Life.”

It seemed we were just getting going when the show was over, leaving us wanting more, which is always a good thing.

Keep up with Harris, his calendar, his projects and his video blogs at



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:

Rita Moreno offers cabaret `Tributes’ at Rrazz Room

The Bay Area’s resident superstar, Rita Moreno, opens a new cabaret act at San Francisco’s Rrazz Room on Wednesday, Nov. 5. But she was recently at the Rrazz Room as an audience member for her dear friend Chita Rivera’s Bay Area cabaret debut.

“We got together afterwards and just laughed and laughed,” Moreno says.

Moreno and Rivera often joke that each has been mistaken for the other more times than they can count. Rivera originated the role of Anita on Broadway in West Side Story and Moreno won an Academy Award in the same role, but in the movie version.

So why don’t the two durable divas put an end to the confusion and do a show together?

“We’ve been hearing that for years,” Moreno says. “But what would we do? The two of us would burn up the stage.”

That’s probably true. Moreno, who will be 77 in December, seemingly never stops. The kind of energy that has won her an Oscar, an Emmy (several Emmys, actually), a Tony and a Grammy still fuels her to work on TV (in recent years she has been a regular on “Oz” and “Cane”), in concert, on the lecture circuit and on the theater stage. She regularly appears at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, which just happens to be the professional theater company closest to the Berkeley hills home she shares with her husband of 43 years, Dr. Leonard Gordon.

“Every once in a while, my husband and I look out the window at the view across the bay and say `What a good thing we did moving here.’ We really love it,” Moreno says.

Shortly after Moreno moved to Berkeley in 1998, she made her cabaret debut at the now-defunct Empire Plush Room in the York Hotel. She dazzled critics and audiences alike and has since become a cabaret regular both here and in New York.

The show she’s opening Wednesday is called Little Tributes, and it started out to pay homage to all the singers and composers that Moreno admires. The show sort of took a different direction, but the title stuck, and there are some tributes – to Peggy Lee, to Harold Arlen.

“I’m doing a lot of Broadway stuff this time,” Moreno says. “I have a gift for finding the one song in a hit musical that nobody has ever heard. I did Sunset Boulevard and there’s a song that I think comes at a seminal moment in the show. It’s just electric, and people don’t know it. Norma realizes that Joe is very quickly falling out of love with her, and the song is her desperate attempt to bring him back into her arms. It’s a short but really wonderful piece. Quite dramatic. I love becoming her again for those few moments.”

Putting together a new act is a labor of love for Moreno. She keeps a pad and pencil at all times in case she hears a song she likes, and she has been known to drop $1,000 at New York’s Colony record store buying CDs that intrigue her.

Curiously, Moreno says she doesn’t think about the audience at all when piecing together a new act.

“I just have to believe that if I like it, they’ll like it,” she says. “In other words, I trust them.”

The act will feature ballads, two Spanish numbers (“One with castanets!” Moreno enthuses) and what Moreno calls the “opener of openers.”

“I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but it’s Kander and Ebb, and I bet you’ve never heard it,” Moreno says. “I don’t come in shouting like Ethel Merman or anything, but it’s really delicious.”

After the cabaret act, Moreno will do some serious thinking about her next project with Berkeley Rep.

“I have a director, (Berkeley Rep artistic director) Tony Taccone, but we don’t have a play,” Moreno says. “We’re planning something, but it will take a while because it’s something more personal as opposed to an existing play. It’s something quite original.”

She’ll also attempt to be home more enjoying her daughter, Fernanda, who lives nearby, and her two grandsons, who Moreno describes as “my heart and soul.”

“What a discovery it is to be home and cook a lot,” she says. “I love to cook and garden and just luxuriate in my beautiful house. I am quite active but not as much as before. Home has always been important, but it has become more important. Now that I’m a whole bunch older, I want to take advantage of this wonderful thing of home and family life.”

But don’t expect Moreno to become a total homebody.

“I’m not planning a retirement. I can’t conceive of such a thing.”

Rita Moreno’s Little Tributes opens Wednesday, Nov. 5 and runs through Nov. 23 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $50-$55 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 866-468-3399 or visit or

Here are Rita Moreno, Chita Rivera and (?) Bette Midler performing “America” from West Side Story at a benefit in LA:

Miss Coco Peru puts the gun of peace to our heads

Clinton Leupp doesn’t pretend to be a girl. He’s a man in a dress with a drag alter-ego named Coco Peru. He’s very much a man and very much Coco – two personalities for the price of one. Now that’s value for your entertainment dollar in this economically unsteady world.

Leupp brought Coco to the Bay Area three years ago and performed Miss Coco Peru Is Undaunted at the New Conservatory Theatre. Now he’s making his Rrazz Room debut in Ugly Coco, which opened Wednesday, Oct. 15 and continues through Nov. 2 in the posh cabaret venue.

Before heading to San Francisco from the Los Angeles area home he shares with Rafael, his partner of 13 years, Leupp described himself as something of a political performer.

“It’s not that I’m overtly political,” he says, “it’s just that I’m saying things I’ve always wanted to say. I try and do it in a subtle, entertaining way. I think people will appreciate it, especially women. Sometimes drag makes women feel uncomfortable, but women are turned on to this show. That’s one thing I’ve gotten through my career. Women tell me they don’t usually like drag, but they like Coco.”

And what’s not to like about Coco? She’s a trim and pretty redhead, her big blue eyes set off by a prim, bouncy Marlo-Thomas-as-“That Girl” flip. She does her own singing (to recorded tracks), she delves into spiritual matters and curses like a sailor.

In Ugly Coco, before the first number (Cy Coleman and Dorothy Field’s “Nobody Does It Like Me” from the Broadway show Seesaw), he has charmed the audience completely and uttered a four-letter word that rhymes with “runt.” Twice.

The concept for this particular show came from an unpleasant real-life experience. One evening, watching “Ugly Betty” on TV, Leupp saw an autobiographical story from his last show unfolding on the small screen.

“That has happened to me three or four times,” Leupp says. “People in Hollywood say, `That’s egotistical. These things happen.’ Yeah, over and over again. After this one, I decided no, I’m talking about this, and it has been liberating. That’s where the title, `Ugly Coco,’ comes in. You steal from me, I’ll steal from you.”

Much of Ugly Coco is devoted to finding some sort of balance in life – balance amid all the struggle and ugliness. Somehow, Coco emerges as a savior. She calls herself “Drag Queen Jesus” and through various means – including the shimmy – she aims to help people find their inner drag queen. If you can transform the outer, she posits, you can transform the inner.

“One thing I’ve learned doing drag,” Leupp says, “is that people respect courage. Growing up in the Bronx, when I discovered the balls to do this, that’s when people in the old neighborhood started to respect me. People who never spoke to me would say hey on the street.”

So Coco, that misanthropic spiritual adviser (“You know what I hate about reality? People.”) swears she is going to save people, “even if I have to hold a f—–g gun to their heads.”

With her self-described “low-level drag queen celebrity,” Miss Coco has never the less taken Leupp on quite a journey. In the new show he talks about being an ostracized kid who would rather go to Radio City to see the movie version of Mame than go to Yankee Stadium.

Years later, he would be able to count Bea Arthur, whom little Leupp adored on the giant Radio City screen singing “The Man in the Moon ,” as a good friend and the person who introduced him to the joys of sushi. Coco talks about that in the show as well as a fantasy helicopter ride over Manhattan with another famous chum, Liza Minnelli, who also took him backstage to meet Barbra Streisand after a Madison Square Garden concert.

Leupp really is an actor inhabiting a character. He calls himself a drag queen, which is certainly true, but there’s more to Coco than that. She’s acerbic and outspoken and hilarious, and Leupp’s comic delivery is flawless.

Leupp pays homage to drag performers who came before him, including Charles Busch and Charles Pierce, but says he’s the first drag queen he knew of who delivered serious monologues amid all the quippy lines and belted songs.

“I love drag queens in bars – they can be very entertaining,” Leupp says. “But I knew I didn’t want to be in a bar setting. I trained to be an actor. I wanted to be in a theater doing something that was different. That’s what got me noticed in the beginning. I was a drag queen telling autobiographical stories, some of which were even moving. I was vulnerable on stage. Most people expect a drag queen to be sarcastic, bitter and mean to the audience. I wanted to go beyond that.”

In Ugly Coco, Leupp definitely takes Coco beyond that. When he delves into stories of childhood pain – being shunned at church, tortured at school – there’s real ache. And even though Coco ends up bitter more often than enlightened, she just can’t remain cynical or bitter, try as she might.

Listen to Coco sing “Moon River” to her tormented younger self and you’ll hear the pain and triumph of maturity.

Leupp is doing edgy, thought-provoking things with Miss Coco. Audiences show up for the drag queen thing – comedy, songs, bitterness – and come away with a whole lot more. This is edgy, interesting theater. Coco Peru is pretty and profane and – not to get too high and mighty about it – profound.

Ugly Coco continues through Nov. 2 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$35 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 866-468-3399 or visit

Now here’s a sneak peek of Coco in Ugly Coco.

Cabaret review: Russ Lorenson’s `Standard Time’

Keep your eyes and ears open for Russ Lorenson’s next show.

If you care about quality cabaret – the elusive art that lives in a specific region where pop, jazz and theater intersect – you’ll care about Lorenson, a local singer making his way steadily through the best rooms in the country.

Lorenson made his official Rrazz Room debut Sunday night in a show called Standard Time which attempts to demonstrate that the Great American Songbook did not stop being written in 1959. Lorenson contends that great songs in the standard style are still being written, and that’s why his set list concentrates on tunes written in the last 20 years or so.

In a white shirt, black vest and jaunty fedora, Lorenson opened the show with Andrew Lippa’s “Raise the Roof” (from the off-Broadway musical The Wild Party) and proceeded to, well, raise the roof a little.

You could say Lorenson(at right, photo by Steve Burkland) is part of the neo-croonerism pack that includes Harry Connick Jr., Michael Buble, Jamie Cullum and Peter Cincotti. He cares about being cool and suave and sexy in his vocal stylings, but unlike a lot of the pack, he’s not interested in aping King Crooner Frank Sinatra.

If anything, Lorenson is more Tony Bennett (to whom he has paid tribute in a previous show) with his smooth, muscular voice. Where Bennett often tries to crack the sky with his belt, Lorenson is more sensitive and supple in regulating the power of his voice.

In a generous set of 19 tunes, Lorenson uncovered some real treasures to prove his point that great songs are still in ample supply. Ronny Whyte and Francesca Blumenthal’s “The Party Upstairs” is a sharp examination of loneliness that ends with a clever, hopeful twist, while Tony Desare and Mike Lee’s “How I Will Say I Love You” is pure, heart-melting romance. Another sweetly romantic tune is Chris Rice’s “When Did You Fall?” about friends turning that tricky corner and becoming lovers.

A fair portion of the set list, entertaining as it is, has a sameness to it. The songs have that pleasant finger-snapping vibe that’s pleasant, but the songs themselves are fairly stock romantic stuff. The one exception is Michael Garin’s comedy number “My Hand,” a raunchy ode to onanism.

But even the more ordinary songs are elevated by Lorenson’s (photo above by Angela Drury) extraordinary quartet. Music director/pianist Kelly Park provides all the arrangements, and they are gorgeous. As a pianist, Park has romance in his fingers, and his work, especially on Peter and Cynthia Cincotti’s “I Changed the Rules,” is stellar. As a songwriter, Park provides some charming songs as well: “Fools in Love,” which he wrote in high school (and is the show’s oldest song), and “Diamond in the Sky,” a variation on “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” written for his daughter.

Brian Carmody
provides a sturdy drum foundation, and Tom Hubbard gives a master class in the musicality of the bass. And Terrence Brewer on a plugged-in guitar lends the quartet a distinctive sound that’s part 1950s and part now. His playing is stunning, and his duet with Lorenson on Maury Yeston’s “Danglin'” is a set highlight.

Special guest Andrea Marcovicci, whose own show, Marcovicci Sings Movies II, opens Tuesday, Oct. 14 and runs through Nov. 2 on the Rrazz stage, stopped by to lend a little star power and congratulate Lorenson, a former student at “cabaret camp.” She sang “Two for the Road” and got off the evening’s best line as she observed an elderly woman in the front row enjoying a cocktail: “I like to see people of a certain age drinking.”

The charming Lorenson could stand to talk a little more to his audience, and he would also do well to throw in a few familiar tunes, which help the audience relax into the music and give Lorenson to show off his ability to put a personal stamp on something we already know.

In this showcase of newer tunes, Lorenson saved the best for last. His encore number is a very new song. Inspired by the title of a comedy song written by Ronny Graham for “New Faces of 1952,” Lorenson and Park took the title, “It’s Raining Memories,” and wrote a whole new song – a gorgeous song with texture and emotion and no veneer of cool.

To see Lorenson’s performance schedule visit

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

Frenchie Davis ready for `Misbehavin’

When her stint on season two of “American Idol” flared into controversy, Frenchie Davis became infamous. The promising young singer had been kicked off early on because of some risqué photos found on the Internet.

The singer managed to turn that infamy into hard-won fame through sheer hard work and by maintaining a focus on what was really important to her.

Her answer to all that media fuss was to turn to theater. She was offered a part in the long-running Broadway musical Rent, and she took it. She parlayed that into a West Coast tour of Dreamgirls that brought her to Sacramento and San Jose.

She’s back in the Bay Area as part of an ongoing series of former “American Idol” contestants performing at the Rrazz Room, a posh cabaret in the Hotel Nikko.

Davis performs through Aug. 2 with a rotating roster of “Idol” kids, and at 29, it’s clear Davis has done a whole lot of growing up since she was last here.

“My sanity is important to me,” Davis says. “I like the fact that I’ve been able to do what I love and still enjoy my life. I can tell you, I have crossed paths and met so many women who are way richer than I am, way more famous, but they don’t enjoy their lives more than I do. They’re miserable, empty shells, thoroughly Botoxed. They don’t even remember who they were when they got into the business.”

During the media melee that erupted during her post-“Idol” days, Davis says she nearly forgot who she was – a girl from Inglewood, California, who didn’t grow up with much money – and what she loved.

“I don’t want to lose my love for this, for performing,” she says. “Most black girls started singing in church. I started in musicals. I always was a little theater queen. I genuinely got into this business because I love to sing. I can’t even describe what it feels like when I’m on stage and I open my mouth. When I’m in a bad mood, I turn on some Aretha and sing along, and I’m over it. By track 4 I’m over it.”

After the Dreamgirls tour, Davis went back to Rent and ended staying four years and nearly driving herself to exhaustion. The grind of eight shows a week on Broadway wore her down, and she developed polyps on her vocal chords and had to have surgery.

But all the hard work also resulted in a slimmer Davis, who is a whole dress size smaller than the last time we saw her around here four years ago.

“Part of it was doing eight shows a week and having a New York Sports Club right next to the theater,” she says. “The other part is about my grandmother, who passed away with diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity. On her deathbed, she made me and my mother promise to be good to ourselves.”

Davis still appreciates her big girl status – “My curves are sexy. I like them and my boyfriends like them.” – but she has a greater appreciation for fitness than she used to.

“Trust me, I’m not trying to be thin, not even a little bit,” she says. “I want to keep my dress size in the double digits. I’d be happy with a 14 to a 16. This is about pushing my body to the limit. Doing theater, if you can’t sing and dance without running out of breath, you’re in trouble. I’ll tell you this: an hour of cardio workout followed by the steam room opens me up, and I can sing anything.”

A hit on the gay pride circuit around the world (she just returned from Carnivale in Rio), Davis will record some dance music. “I owe that to my gays,” she says. But as for a debut album, she’s still soul searching on that topic.

“Everyone says, `Frenchie, you gotta do an album,’ but I just don’t know,” she says. “The recording industry comes with so much stuff, and nothing that has to do with music. You know, Nell Carter never recorded an album, but we know how fabulous she was. If I keep working to make it better, people will remember my contribution to the arts. I truly believe my contributions to the world will be outside of music. Like the Frenchie Davis School of the Arts. I’ll definitely have a legacy.”

When Davis headed to “Idol” land, she left Howard University in Washington, D.C., about 30 credits shy of her diploma. Education is important to her, and she had planned on going back to finish this fall. But then musical theater interfered. Instead of hitting the books, she’ll be hitting the road, along with “American Idol” Season 2 winner Ruben Studdard in a production of the Fats Waller revue Ain’t Misbehavin’.

“I’ll go back to school in the fall of ’09,” Davis says. “I can still work on the weekends. And I won’t be a poor student again. I remember that was like. I’ll have the time and money to finish the degree right.”

In the meantime she’s looking forward to touring with her good friend Studdard.

“Ruben’s my boo!” she trills. “When we were on the show we hung out a lot. Us and Rickey Smith and some of the other kids. Everybody else, well, let’s just say they were advanced. Maybe in college I had a glass of wine or smoked a joint, but I didn’t dabble beyond that. Some of those other kids were advanced. They’d be full out. And me and Ruben and Ricky, Nashika and Julie and some others would be playing cards in my room. We didn’t have time for shenanigans.”

When her show business shenanigans are over, Davis says she’s turning toward making a difference in the world like her father, who works with a human rights organization in Darfur. She may even get a master’s degree in international affairs at NYU.

“You know, I’m not 23 anymore. I’m not even 25,” Davis says. “I’m thinking about my life goals, not just career goals. When do I want to become a mother? I don’t want to wait ’til I’m 40 to have kids. And theater takes such a toll on the voice and body. I have to figure out what I’m going to do when my body says to me, `Bitch, I’m not doing eight shows a week anymore.’ In the theater, you can’t fake it. It has to be real, and I want to keep it real and then move on.”

For information: Frenchie Davis appears with other former “American Idol” contestants Rickey Smith, Julia DeMato and Trenyce today (July 25) through Sunday (July 26) and with RJ Helton, Julia DeMato and Trenyce July 29-August 2. The Rrazz Room is in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$55 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 866-468-3399 or visit