Lost in the stars with Annaleigh Ashford

Annaleigh 2
Annaleigh Ashford, a Tony Award winner for You Can’t Take It with You, closed out the season for Bay Area Cabaret with a sterling concert at the Venetian Room in the Fairmont Hotel.

Anyone who laments the lack of spectacular new Broadway stars need look no further than Annaleigh Ashford, a bona fide star if ever there was one. A Tony Award-winner for You Can’t Take It with You and former star of Wicked, Kinky Boots and, most recently, Sunday in the Park with George opposite Jake Gyllenhaal, Ashford is smart, charismatic and so loaded with talent it’s almost an embarrassment of riches.

Ashford’s act (Still) Lost in the Stars was the season finale for the Bay Area Cabaret season, and if you like fireworks with your finales, you would have loved this show.

It’s not everyone who can deliver within the same sharp cabaret show a 10-minute Donna Summer medley (complete with original rhyming text about the scene in Studio 54), make jokes about golden showers and yeast infections and deliver the most eloquent moving take on Stephen Sondheim’s “Children and Art” (from Sunday in the Park) imaginable. Ashford is that kind of performer – sincere, silly, elegant, buffoonish – but above all, she has a spectacular voice with which she can do just about anything and do it perfectly.

With a bouncy head of blonde curls and a sparkly ballroom dancing dress (she says she found it on eBay), she looked a bit like a feral Tammy Wynette, which suited the comedy (doing death-drop splits during the disco bit) and the drama (“Love Hurts”) equally well. Her three-piece band, headed by music director/arranger Will Van Dyke, skillfully navigated her changes in tone and ably handed everything from wacky disco to ukulele-inspired reinvention.

Not content to simply reinterpret pop songs (“Crazy” – Gnarls Barkley not Patsy Cline) or standards (“Come Rain or Come Shine” in the style of Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s “Over the Rainbow”), Ashford also likes to play with her audience. She pulled up a game fellow during her “Broadway medley madness” segment in which she had the volunteer help the audience match the songs with the shows as she sang a tune from each of her Broadway gigs. Later in the show, she had volunteers cue the audience for sing-along/callback moments in take on Alanis Morissette’s “One Hand in My Pocket.”

That’s all very entertaining, but it’s when Ashford really connects with a song, as she does on “Children Will Listen” or on the passionate show-closing take on Jacques Brel’s “If We Only Have Love” that she shines brightest. And that’s not a normal “bright” – that’s a blinding, Ashford-level bright. Star bright.

Click here for more information about Bay Area Cabaret. The new season will be announced soon.

Pure pop pleasure with the Puppini Sisters

Puppini Sisters 1
The Puppini Sisters (from left), Emma Smith, Marcella Puppini and Kate Mullins, performed two shows at the Venetian Room at the Fairmont Hotel on Sunday, April 17, as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season. Photos courtesy of the Puppini Sisters

Under ordinary circumstances, the fact of wonderful British actor Hugh Laurie sitting a table away from me would be highly distracting. But Sunday afternoon at the Fairmont’s Venetian Room wasn’t ordinary circumstances: it was the only scheduled US performance of the British act The Puppini Sisters in support of their new album, The High Life.

The afternoon performance, like the sold-out evening performance, was part of the Bay Area Cabaret season, a season that spans Broadway, pop, jazz and, in a grand Puppini embrace, high camp and sterling musicianship.

If you don’t know the Puppinis, click here and spend some quality time reveling in their close harmonies, their abundant humor and their impeccable musicianship. The trio, which knows its way around a sisters Andrews, Boswell, McGuire, Dinning, Lennon arrangement, was formed in 2004 by Marcella Puppini with Kate Mullins and Stephanie O’Brien. In 2012, O’Brien left the group, replaced by Emma Smith, but the course of the Puppinis ever did run through traditional numbers (“Jeepers Creepers,” “Diamond Are a Girl’s Best Friend”) and not-so-traditional numbers (Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights”).

In concert at the Fairmont, the Puppinis were in fine fettle, looking good (they were decked out in Easter basket-colored tops and skirts adorned with pom-poms) and sounding marvelous. Backed by a swinging three-piece band – Henrik Jensen on bass, Blake Wilner on guitar and Peter Ibbetson on drums – the ladies dazzled with a set list that provided 75 minutes of serious fun.

They opened with the original title song of the new album, “Is This the High Life?,” and veered directly into classic three-part harmony territory with “Mr. Sandman.” From the traditional to the decidedly nontraditional: a thrilling mash-up of “Rapper’s Delight,” which swings more easily than you might imagine, and Sia’s “Chandelier” (ditto).

Puppini Sisters 2

Throughout the show, the Puppinis (none of whom are actually sisters) opted to break down the harmonies and let the individual voices shine with solo spots. First up was the beguiling Mullins with a full-throttle version of “Love Me Tender” accentuated by Wilner’s electric guitar. Puppini was the next solo with the self-penned title track to her new solo album, “Everything Is Beautiful,” in which she promises the meaning of life in three minutes (and she delivers). And then Smith pretty much brought down the house with her dedication to Tony Bennett: “Cheek to Cheek,” playfully performed with Jensen on bass and the audience snapping along.

As good as they are on their own, the Puppinis are nothing short of dazzling when they’re together. There were no low points in this show, but among the highlights was a mashup (in the truest sense) of Destiny’s Child’s “Bills Bills Bills,” Meghan Trainor’s “Dear Future Husband, Kander and Ebb’s “Money Makes the World Go ‘Round” from Cabaret, Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money,” The Adventure of Stevie V’s “Dirty Cash (Money Talks),” Madonna’s “Material Girl” and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. How do you follow such a thing? With a dreamy version of “The Tennessee Waltz,” that’s how.

Between the be-bop vocalese salute (“We Love to Bebop”) and the reinvention of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” they managed a jaw-dropping tribute to David Bowie (“Changes,” with a final few mind-blowing notes) and a nod to the women who provided their foundation, the Andrews Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”

When you’re having this much fun showing off your extraordinary jazz/pop/harmonic chops, and the audience is going wild with delight, what can you possible do for an encore? If you’re the Puppinis, you promise to turn the camp dial up to 11 and haul out the swingingest, funniest version of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” this side of an animated chalk drawing.

The Puppini Sisters are among the most exciting, innovative and entertaining acts out there right now. They are majorly talented musicians whose specialty, lucky for us audiences, is happy-making music of the highest order.

[bonus videos]
The Puppini Sisters’ official video for “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”

The Puppini Sisters’ live mashup of “Rapper’s Delight” and “Chandelier”

Net up in the Bay Area Cabaret season is Bay Area Teen Idol 2016 on May 15 and Liz Callaway and Ann Hampton Callaway’s From West Side Story to Wicked: Broadway by the Callaways on May 22. Call 415-927-4636 or visit www.bayareacabaret.org.

The general awesomeness of Emily Skinner

Emily Skinner 1
Tony-nominated Broadway actor Emily Skinner dazzled Bay Area Cabaret audiences on Sunday, March 6 at the Fairmont’s Venetian Room, her San Francisco concert debut.

In the last couple of years, San Francisco went from no Emily Skinner to new and improved now with 200 percent more Emily Skinner. The Tony-nominated actor (Side Show) was suddenly making regular appearances on our stages. In October of 2014, Skinner revealed her star power in 42nd Street Moon’s Do I Hear a Waltz? (read about it here),
in May of last year, she was a highlight of American Conservatory Theater’s A Little Night Music (read about it here). The question is how did we get so lucky?

On Sunday, March 6, Skinner made her San Francisco concert debut as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season, and her show was everything her local fans could have wanted: nearly 90 minutes of Skinner showing us why she’s one of the best in the business known as Broadway (pronounced broadWAY).

Skinner’s combination of charm, confidence and vocal mastery makes for a mightily entertaining show. Accompanied by John Fisher on piano, Skinner moved easily through a set of songs that mixed comedy, character and trenchant emotion. She turned to Kander and Ebb twice, once on the opener “Everybody’s Girl” from Steel Pier and later in the show with When You’re Good to Mama from Chicago. Both are saucy, which is something Skinner does well, perhaps because she admits to a fascination with Mae West, whom she channeled brilliantly on the signature “Come Up and See Me Some Time.”

Emily Skinner 2

The out-and-out comedy numbers, like “Here Comes the Ballad” (which Wally Harper apparently wrote for Barbara Cook) and “Bald” by Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler, delivered reliable laughs. And the character tunes – Ursula the Sea Witch’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from The Little Mermaid, Sondheim’s angry “Now You Know” from Merrily We Roll Along and Noël Coward’s “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?” from Sail Away – found something a little meatier than simply comedy.

When Skinner decides to take a breath and play it straight, there’s magic in her balladry. Her powerful, unadorned take on Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” made a familiar song sound fresh, and the poignant “I Don’t Need a Roof” from Andrew Lippa’s Big Fish made a strong case for taking another look at the score from this short-lived Broadway show. The grown-up lullaby “Sleepy Man” from The Robber Bridegroom was hypnotic and lulling in the best possible way.

It turns out that when Skinner was asked to audition for Side Show, they didn’t request an up-tempo and a ballad. Rather, they asked auditioners to perform a song that revelealed something about themselves, about who they are. Skinner chose a tune written by Side Show composer Bill Russell from the song/monologue cycle Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, and she got the job. Now having heard her perform the number, it’s no surprise why. Her version of “My Brother Lived in San Francisco” is a deeply emotional experience, filled with warmth, love and pain. It’s one of those songs (and performances) that’s like a three-act play all contained in a few unforgettable minutes.

Skinner closed her set with a spare and achingly lovely “For All We Know,” and it left the audience – hooting and hollering and on their feet – wanting more, and that seems just right. Now that Emily Skinner is making regular stops in San Francisco, it will be exciting to see what she does here next.

[bonus video]
In her cabaret show, Emily Skinner sings “Send in the Clowns,” probably Sondheim’s most popular and well-covered song. Skinner turned to YouTube to sample different interpretations, and two of her favorites are versions by Cher and Dame Judi Dench. Please enjoy this mini-“Clowns’ fest.

The Bay Area Cabaret season in the Venetian Room in the Fairmont Hotel continues with the fabulous Puppini Sisters April 17 (5:30 p.m. show is sold out; 2 p.m. show added); Bay Area Teen Idol 2015 on May 15; Liz Callaway and Ann Hampton Callaway’s From West Side Story to Wicked on May 22. Visit www.bayareacabaret.org or call 415-927-4636.

Judy Collins warbles Sondheim

Judy Collins 1
Judy Collins translates her hit with Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” into an evening of the composer’s works in Judy Collins Sings Sondheim, a presentation of Bay Area Cabaret at the Venetian Room in the Fairmont. Photo courtesy of Judy Collins

It’s only logical that Judy Collins would end up doing a show devoted to the songs of Stephen Sondheim. The legendary American singer is, after all, the only one to deliver Sondheim an actual hit. Her version of his “Send in the Clowns” (from A Little Night Music) is his only radio hit – it was on the Billboard charts for 11 weeks in 1975, peaking at No. 36. Then, rather amazingly, Collins’ recording charted again in 1977, peaking at No 19. The recording also nabbed a Grammy for song of the year.

Some three decades later, Collins, more gorgeous than ever at 75, is parlaying her success with “Clowns” into an entire act. Judy Collins Sings Sondheim made its debut Saturday night as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season at the Venetian Room in the Fairmont San Francisco. Accompanied on piano by Russ Walden Collins launched an ambitious show that is clearly still a work in progress.

Collins’ voice is as pure and powerful as it ever was, and when she truly connects to a song, there’s no better place to be than sitting rapt in her audience. Quite often in the show, though, Collins relied heavily on lyric sheets to make her way through the labyrinth of Sondheim’s dexterous verbosity. That reliance kept her from fully investing in the songs, although musically she was on far surer footing.

Collins is also attempting, in her patter, to interweave her autobiography with Sondheim’s life story. The results are awkward, and, for the most part, unnecessary. We don’t need to know that Sondheim was 9 when Collins was born in 1939 or that the hit song of the day was “Over the Rainbow” (although hearing Collins sing a little of that song is delightful) or that maybe Sondheim’s parents took him to see the movie. The attempt at twin narratives is really a way for Collins to sneak in some of her own hit songs.

We hear “Both Sides Now,” “My Father,” “Some Day Soon” and “Chelsea Morning,” and it’s interesting when she’s singing one of her well-worn songs, how much more effective and connected she is than when she’s tentatively stepping through the Sondheim material.

That’s not to say, however, that it’s a trial to listen to Collins sing Sondheim. On the contrary, it’s fascinating to hear what she does with the intriguing material she has selected. The trio of songs that, to my mind, have the potential of being “Send in the Clowns”-worthy interpretations are “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” from Sweeney Todd, the title song from Anyone Can Whistle and “No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods. Each song benefits from Collins’ shimmering soprano, and she finds a trenchant folk element in each.

For someone who says she didn’t know who Sondheim was before she recorded “Clowns,” Collins has clearly become an enthusiast. Her song choices stretch from the better known (“Being Alive” from Company, “I’m Still Here” from Follies, “Not a Day Goes By” from Merrily We Roll Along) to the wonderfully obscure (“Take Me to the World” and “I Remember” from Evening Primrose, “The Road You Didn’t Take” from Follies). She honors Sunday in the Park with George with a full medley that includes “Children and Art,” “Sunday,” “Finishing the Hat” and “Move On.” When she fully masters this medley, it’s going to be magnificent.

And that’s pretty much my feeling about Judy Collins Sings Sondheim – it’s a great idea for a great performer and is well on its way to being a glorious showcase for the talents of both Sondheim and Collins.

[bonus video]
Here’s Judy Collins singing “Send in the Clowns” with the Boston Pops in 1976.

Judy Collins Sings Sondheim has one more performance at 5 p.m. March 1. $60 general, $45 subscribers. $90 premium includes post-show meet and greet. Coming up in the Bay Area Cabaret season at the Venetian Room: March 21 Ramsey Lewis and John Pizzarelli; April 19 Annaleigh Ashford; May 31 Bobby Conte Thornton at 5 p.m. and Lillias White and Billy Stritch at 8 p.m. Call 415-392-4400 or visit www.bayareacabaret.org.

A hitch in the getalong: Looking back at 2014’s best


Reviewing the shows I reviewed this year, I was struck by two things: first, and as usual, there’s an abundance of talented people doing great work at all levels of Bay Area theater; second, this was a lesser year in Bay Area theater. Perhaps the reason for the later has to do with the changes in the Bay Area itself – artists are fleeing outrageous rents, companies are downsizing or disappearing altogether. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that I don’t see as much theater as I used to and to find the really interesting stuff, you have vary the routine and expand the reach a little more.

That said, there was still plenty of terrific theater in 2014. Herewith some thoughts on an assortment of favorites.


1. Lost in A Maze-ment – Just Theater’s A Maze originally appeared in the summer of 2013, and I missed it. Luckily for me (and all audiences), the company brought it back with the help of Shotgun Players. Rob Handel’s play surprises at every turn and resists easy classification. The cast was extraordinary, and coming to the end of the play only made you want to watch it again immediately. Read my review here.

2. Choosing Tribes – Families were the thing at Berkeley Rep last spring. Issues of communication, familial and otherwise, were at the heart of director Jonathan Moscone’s powerful production of Nina Raine’s Tribes. Dramatic, comic, frustrating and completely grounded in real life, this is a play (and a production) that lingers. Read my review here.

3. Tony Kushner’s Intelligent – There’s no one like Tony Kushner, and when he decides to go full on Arthur Miller, it’s worth nothing. Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures at Berkeley Rep was a master class in the art of dialogue and family dynamics. Read my review here.

4. Adopt a Mutt – San Francisco playwright Christopher Chen’s Mutt at Impact Theater (co-produced with Ferocious Lotus Theater Company) was hilarious. Thinking about Patricia Austin’s physical comedy still makes me laugh. Sharp, edgy and consistently funny, this was my favorite new play of the year. Read my review here.

5. Blazing RaisinCalifornia Shakespeare Theater’s 40th anniversary season got off to a powerhouse start with A Raisin in the Sun, which worked surprisingly well outdoors in director Patricia McGregor’s beguiling production. Read my review here.

6. Party on – The UNIVERSES’ Party People was probably the most exciting show of the year … and the most educational. An original musical about the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, this Party, directed by Liesl Tommy, was thrilling, revolutionary, incendiary and a powerful example of what theater can do. Read my review here.

7. Counting the DaysThe Bengsons, husband-and-wife duo Shaun and Abigail Bengson, proved that a rock musical can have heart and great music and intrigue in Hundred Days. This world premiere had some structural problems (goodbye, ghost people), but with a glorious performer like Abigail Bengson on stage, all is forgiven. Pure enjoyment that, with any luck, will return as it continues to evolve. Read my review here.

8. Fire-breathing DragonsJenny Connell Davis’ The Dragon Play at Impact Theatre was a strange and wondrous thing. Director Tracy Ward found nuance and deep wells of feeling in one of Impact’s best-ever productions. Read my review here.

9. Barbra’s basement – Michael Urie was the only actor on stage in Jonathan Tolins’ marvelous play Buyer and Cellar, part of the SHN season, but he was more incisive and entertaining than many a giant ensemble cast. This tale of working in the “shops” in Barbra Streisand’s basement was screamingly funny but with more. Urie was a marvel of charm and versatility. Read my review here.

10. Thoughts on Ideation – It might seem unfair that Bay Area scribe Aaron Loeb’s Ideation should appear on the year’s best list two years in a row, but the play is just that good. Last year, San Francisco Playhouse presented the world premiere of the play in its Sandbox Series. That premiere resulted in awards and a re-staging with the same cast and director on the SF Playhouse mains stage. More brilliant and entertaining than ever, Loeb’s play is an outright gem.


Best hop from screen to stage – The Broadway touring company of Once, which arrived as part of the SHN season, is a superb example of how deft adaptation can further reveal a work of art’s depth and beauty. Rather than just stick the movie on stage (hello, Elf or any number of recent ho-hummers), director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett make the cinematic theatrical and bring the audience directly into the heart of the story. Read my review here.

Dramatic duo – The year’s most electric pairing turned out to be Stacy Ross and Jamie Jones in the Aurora Theatre Company production of Gidion’s Knot. Intense barely begins to describe the taut interaction between a parent and a fifth-grade teacher reacting to crisis and death. These two fine actors (under the direction of Jon Tracy were phenomenal. Read my review here.

Bucky’s back – Among the most welcome returns of the year was D.W. Jacobs’ R. Buckminster Fuller: The History (and Mystery) of the Universe starring original Bucky Ron Campbell. Before, sadly, succumbing to financial hardship, the late San Jose Repertory Theatre brought Bucky back, and everything the man says seems smart and/or funny and/or relevant to our own lives. Read my review here.

Simply Chita! – For sheer pleasure, nothing this year beat the evening spent with octogenarian legend Chita Rivera in Chita: A Legendary Celebration as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season. Chita was a wow in every way. Read my review here.

MVP 1 – Nicholas Pelczar started off the year practically stealing the show in ACT’s Major Barbara as Adolphus “Dolly” Cusins (review here). Later in the year he was the show in Marin Theatre Company’s The Whale (review here). Confined in a fat suit, Pelczar was a marvel of compassion and complication. He also happened to be adorable in Cal Shakes’ Pygmalion and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Pelczar has entered the ranks of the Bay Area’s best.

MVP 2 – Simply put, without Emily Skinner in the lead role, there would have been little reason to see 42nd Street Moon’s production of Do I Hear a Waltz?. Tony nominee Skinner was a revelation as a tightly wound American tourist in Venice. Her voice was spectacular, but her entire performance was even more so. Read my review here.

MVP 3 – Jeffrey Brian Adams deserves some sort of theatrical purple heart medal. His performance as Chuck Baxter in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Promises, Promises is heartfelt, multi-dimensional and entirely likable – in other words, he is everything the production itself is not. In this giant misstep by the usually reliable Playhouse, Adams shone and presented himself as someone to watch from here on out.

No thanks – Not every show can be a winner. Among the shows I could have done without this year: Accidental Death of an Anarchist at Berkeley Rep; Promises, Promises at San Francisco Playhouse; Forbidden Broadway at Feinstein’s at the Nikko; SHN’s I Love Lucy Live on Stage.

Thank you, more please – If these shows didn’t make my best-of list, they came very close: Lasso of Truth at Marin Theatre Company; HIR at Magic Theatre; 42nd Street Moon’s original musical Painting the Clouds with Sunshine; California Shakespeare Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Aurora Theatre Company’s Rapture, Blister, Burn; SHN’s Pippin; Impact Theatre’s Year of the Rooster.

Chita! The liveliest living legend of all

Chita Rivera 1
The liveliest living legend you’re ever likely to see: Ms. Chita Rivera, still going strong at 81, performed her cabaret act Chita: A Legendary Celebration as part of Bay Area Cabaret’s 10th anniversary season in the Venetian Room at the Fairmont. Photo by Monica Simoes. Photo below by Laurie Marie Duncan

In her opening number, Chita Rivera sings, “You’re alive, so come on and show it. There’s such a lot of livin’ to do.” She finishes the song, and the 81-year-old legend adds, “I mean it.” And she’s not kidding. After a triumphant turn in the Fairmont’s Venetian Room in 2010, Rivera returned to the Bay Area Cabaret as part of the company’s 10th anniversary season. Rivera’s performance four years ago was spectacular (read my review here). This time out, she was beyond spectacular. She exuded energy and charm and pizzazz for 90 minutes and dazzled, seemingly without even trying to. It’s just who she is.

In Chita: A Legendary Celebration (somewhat related to the show she did in New York last year with chorus boys and superstar guests), she sings many of the same songs she sang four years ago and told versions of the same stories. While that might work against some performers, Rivera brings exuberance to every full-throated note she sings or word she utters.

Chita Rivera 2

She was in fine voice on Sunday and was especially marvelous on Brel’s “Carousel,” a sometimes annoying musical nervous breakdown that Rivera turned into a showstopper, and on her trio of tunes from Kiss of the Spider Woman.. No one will ever sing songs from Chicago like Rivera. During “Nowadays,” she even did a Gwen Verdon impression that was so uncanny it drew gasps from the adoring audience.

As she sang, told stories and even did a little dancing (she shook her hip at one point and exclaimed, “It still works!”), Rivera was ageless. A hoofer, a workhouse, a true Broadway superstar doing what she does best: making her audience members even happier than they expected to be.

Here are Chita and Gwen from the Mike Douglas Show during the original run of Chicago.

[bonus interview]
I had the great pleasure of chatting with Chita Rivera for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read about Ms. Rivera’s TV viewing habits and her desire to play a zombie on The Walking Dead. Click here to read the story.

Also, there was a nugget of info that didn’t make it into the story but did make it into the editor’s note that also had to do with TV:

When you picture Chita Rivera, you think Broadway. You think “West Side Story.”

But when Chad Jones interviewed Rivera for this week’s cover story, they had a great conversation about, of all things, television.

“When she’s not working, Rivera likes to watch TV,” Jones says. “She has complete disdain for reality shows, especially ‘Dance Moms’ about kids in dance class.” Among her favorites? There’s “Walking Dead,” “Breaking Bad” and pretty much anything on PBS, Jones says. But “she will admit that if she has time in the morning, she likes ‘The Price Is Right’ and ‘Let’s Make a Deal,’ both of which tap into the positive attitude she’s managed to hold onto all these years,” Jones says.

“I like people jumping up and down and winning things and not being afraid to look foolish,” Rivera says. “There’s a life lesson in there.”

Norm Lewis brings on the leading man charm

Norm Lewis 1
Norm Lewis dazzled the Bay Area Cabaret audience Sunday night in his local concert debut. Photo by Peter Hurley

More than two dozen songs and four standing ovations later, Norm Lewis has officially made his San Francisco splash. The Broadway leading man and golden-voiced baritone made his long-overdue Bay Area concert debut Sunday night at the Fairmont’s Venetian Room as part of the Bay Area Cabaret’s 10th anniversary season.

Most recently, the 50-year-old Lewis nabbed a Tony Award nomination opposite Audra McDonald in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, but his impressive resume also includes Javert in the revival of Les Misèrables, King Triton in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, the Sondheim revue Sondheim on Sondheim and Side Show. He also has a recurring role as a senator on ABC’s “Scandal” and will be starring opposite Bernadette Peters and Jeremy Jordan in A Bed and a Chair conceived by Sondheim and Wynton Marsalis. So all of that to say: Norm Lewis has chops, and he’s not afraid to use them.

Outside the Broadway world, Lewis is less celebrated than he should be. He’s got a superb solo album, 2008’s This is the Life! (check it out on Amazon here), and he’s as charming as he is handsome (which is saying quite a lot). Why he’s not a massive star remains a bit of a mystery, but if Sunday’s concert is any indication, this is a performer who won’t be anybody’s secret for long.

With the help of music director Darius Frowner on piano and Paul Bonnell on bass, Lewis performed a generous slice of show tunes, standards and pop. Wearing a shiny gray suit, Lewis took the stage with a two-song tribute to Tony Bennett, “The Best Is Yet to Come” (whose lyrics Lewis, um, improvised) and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” followed by another shout out to a Venetian veteran, Peggy Lee, with “Fever.”

From here, Lewis got biographical, talking about growing up in Eatonville, Fla., and spending lots of time in church. His medley of spirituals mixed with pop songs like “ABC” and “Rock with You” could have gone on for another 20 minutes and lost none of its appeal. He paid tribute to Johnny Mathis, one of his favorite crooners, with “Misty” and revealed one of his mother’s guilty pleasures, Tom Jones with “It’s Not Unusual,” which included a ’70s-style saunter through the audience.

Once Lewis dove into the Broadway songbook, the show really took off. We got “Be a Lion” from The Wiz, “Corner of the Sky” from Pippin and his jubilant “Before the Parade Passes By” from Hello, Dolly! to name a few.

From the shows he’s been in, he offered “You Should Be Loved” from Side Show, “I’d Rather Be Sailing” from A New Brain and two songs from Les Miz, “Stars” and “Bring Him Home” (the first of the four standing ovations). From Porgy and Bess he smiled his way through a warm and wonderful “I Got Plenty of Nothing” before launching into a grab-bag section that included “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Sorry-Grateful,” “Paris Blues,” Oleta Adams’ “I Just Had to Hear Your Voice” and a rousing “Being Alive.”

For his encores, Lewis sang “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” and David Friedman’s “We Can Be Kind.” This is a guy with a killer belt – killer – though he doesn’t always show a deep emotional connection to a song.

Norm Lewis, as polished and accomplished as he may be, is in the middle of a terrific career, but it seems in some ways he’s just beginning. He’s a Broadway star gaining traction outside of New York, and as he sang at the top of the show, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

[bonus video]

Norm Lewis singing “Before the Parade Passes By” from Hello, Dolly!

Lea Salonga: Broadway star, Disney princess, cabaret chanteuse

Lea Salonga 2
Tony Award-winning Broadway star Lea Salonga brings her cabaret act to the Fairmont’s Venetian Room as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season. Photos courtesy of Lea Salonga

It’s the day after the Richmond-Ermet AIDS Foundation, and Lea Salonga, visiting family in the Bay Area, is still glowing because, at the curtain call, she got to hold hands with Shirley Jones.

“Some of the 20somethings there had no idea who Shirley Jones was,” Salonga says. “My jaw dropped on the floor. Come on, people! Watch a rerun of The Partridge Family at the very least. See Oklahoma! or Carousel! She has done Broadway and film and television and she still looks and sounds amazing. If you don’t know Shirley Jones, woe be to you. Those of us from New York all know who she is.”

Salonga is no slouch herself. A Tony winner for Miss Saigon, she is married, has a 5-year-old daughter and makes her home in Manila, in her native Philippines.

She continues to work on stage – her most recent Broadway show was the revival of Les Miserables from 2006 to 2008. Though she’s performed in concert since she was a kid, she’s doing the more mature thing now. With her debut last year at New York’s Carlyle Hotel, she’s officially a cabaret chanteuse.

Lea Salonga 1She’ll make her San Francisco cabaret debut later this month as the season opener for Bay Area Cabaret, now in its second season in the Fairmont Hotel’s venerable Venetian Room. Her original date on Sept. 16 sold out quickly, so a second show, at 5pm on Sept. 17 has been added.

Earlier this year, Salonga turned 40. If it seems she should have hit that mark a while ago, it’s a testament to her already storied career, which became an international success when she was cast as the title role of Miss Saigon at 17.

“Around my birthday, I looked in the mirror and said, ‘If that’s what 40 looks like, bring on 50!’” Salonga says. “I think getting older is great. Actresses worry about people knowing their ages, and I understand that because people are judgmental. But people know my story. I can’t lie about my age. I’m primarily a singer, so age doesn’t matter. The 40s are wonderful so far. You’re young enough to enjoy life, old enough to kick some ass and no one questions you.”

Lea Salonga CD coverSalonga received some glowing reviews for her Carlyle cabaret shows, and she recently released a live CD, recorded in that lovely Manhattan boite, called Lea Salonga: The Journey So Far. The disc surveys her entire career, including her gigs as the singing voice for Disney princesses Jasmine (in Aladdin) and Mulan (in the movie of the same name).

Recently dubbed a Disney Legend, Salonga and fellow princess voices Anika Noni Rose (The Princess and the Frog), Jodi Benson (The Little Mermaid) and Paige O’Hara (Beauty and the Beast), received awards and sang their signature songs.

Salonga’s daughter was in princess heaven at the ceremony, scoring autographs from all the famous ladies – including her own mother. “She was looking up at me saying, ‘Mommy sign my book?’ I said, ‘Honey, I live with you. I can sign your book any time.’ But I thought that was sweet. I actually matter to my daughter!”

In addition to her concert and cabaret work, Salonga is heading back to the musical theater stage with a show called Allegiance with music and lyrics by Jay Kuo and a book by Kuo and Lorenzo Thione. The show, set during the Japanese internment during World War II, will open at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in the summer of 2012.

The musical had a workshop in New York earlier this summer, and the cast included George Takei and Telly Leung. Salonga says the workshop “went really well.” And the really great thing, she says: “My mother really liked it and loved the music. She said based on the music alone the show will fly. Believe me, she minces no words if she thinks something is bad. But this is a show she enjoyed. We’re all excited about the show. I consider myself a transplanted New Yorker, so I’d be very happy if the show ended up there.”

Lea Salonga is in concert as part of the Bay Area Cabaret season at 8pm Sept. 16 (SOLD OUT) and at 5pm Sept. 17 in the Fairmont Hotel’s Venetian Room, 950 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $60 general with discounts for subscribers and those younger than 18. Call 415-392-4400 or visit www.bayareacabaret.org.

[bonus video]
Here’s Lea Salonga singing “Reflection” from Mulan at the Disney Legends award ceremony last month at the D23 Expo.

The blossoming of Anika Noni Rose

Anika Noni Rose

Watching Anika Noni Rose (seen above, photo by Andrew Macpherson) on the cabaret stage, you sense a superstar in the making.

The gorgeous Rose, all of 38, has already made a name for herself in the theater, winning the Tony Award for her performance in the Tony Kushner/Jeanine Tesori masterwork Caroline, or Change. On screen, she provided the voice of Tiana, Disney’s first African-American princess (in The Princess and the Frog) and she smooched and sang with Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson and Beyonce in Dreamgirls.

She has conquered stage, screen and TV (The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, The Good Wife) – the cabaret stage is about the only performance arena she hasn’t yet made her own. But she’s working on it. In only her second solo cabaret act – her first in San Francisco – Rose demonstrated a sassy onstage persona, an appealing voice and a vintage collection of songs.

Part of the Bay Area Cabaret season at the Venetian Room in the Fairmont Hotel, Rose’s concert, which she had presented earlier this month at Lincoln Center as part of the American Songbook concert series, served a tribute to her late grandmother. The songs, mainly from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, showcased Rose’s high, bright soprano and her charming, sassy way with a lyric.

Looking absolutely gorgeous in a sparkly gold dress, Rose opened the show in the audience, inviting audience members to “Come On-a My House” while pianist/music director Eugene Gwozdz provided playful accompaniment from the smalls stage.

Though she warned that she wasn’t a “patter girl,” Rose’s between-song comments were actually a highlight of the hour-long concert. She said that being in San Francisco was “like coming home” because of the time she spent here in grad school at American Conservatory Theater (indeed, Carey Perloff, ACT’s artistic director, was at a table near the stage). In describing the songs to follow, she described them as songs she grew up with because they were her grandmother’s favorites. She also took a moment to diss popular music: “I don’t know if there’s anything on the radio right now we’ll be singing in 50 years.”

Some of her show’s highlights include Eartha Kitt’s “I Want to Be Evil,” “He’s Funny That Way” (a Daniels/Whiting hit for Billie Holiday), Kansas Joe McCoy’s “Why Don’t You Do Right?” (a Peggy Lee/Benny Goodman hit) and a spirited “Relax Max,” a Dinah Washington tune that involved some slapstick from pianist Gwozdz.

Like Diana Ross, Rose has a beautiful, light tone that is brightest in the upper registers and all but disappears in the lower. Miss Rose uses her voice more effectively than Miss Ross often does, but her song choices don’t always highlight the best part of her voice. For instance, the bluesier Harold Arlen numbers “Blues in the Night” and “When the Sun Comes Out” both showed Rose’s limitations more than her strengths, though the final note of the set-ending “When the Sun Comes Out” was the evening’s most satisfying big, old Broadway belter moment.

Rose seemed to have fun in her cabaret moment, especially on numbers like “Goody Goody” and “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” (incorporating some clever flavors of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf), and though the show, as Rose promised, wasn’t heavy on emotion, she came close with an introspective “Willow Weep for Me.”

Self-deprecating and diva-ish, Rose can joke about herself and her cabaret fears (“It’s scary – it’s just me, no character”) one minute and yell at the bartenders in the back of the room the next for rattling (very loudly) their ice buckets during her numbers. She’s got a lot of star power and charisma – the next time she brings us a cabaret show, chances are pretty good it will be even better than this one.



Upcoming for Bay Area Cabaret:

March 1, Patti LuPone in conversation with Steven Winn (presented in association with City Arts & Lectures) at the Palace of Fine Arts

March 13, John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey at the Venetian Room (5pm show sold out, tickets still available for 7:30pm)

May 1, Bay Area Teen Idol singing contest, a benefit for the San Francisco Arts Education Project at the Venetian Room

May 14, Lillias White’s tribute to Cy Coleman at the Venetian Room

Visit www.bayareacabaret.org or call City Box Office at 415-392-4400.