Only neo maxi zoom dweebies won’t enjoy BratPack

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For the Record Live and Feinstein’s at the Nikko present BratPack, a nostalgic fusion of ’80s movies and music that feels part musical, part concert, part vintage video from the age of MTV. Below: Zahan Mehta channels John Cusack in Say Anything. Photos by Kelly Mason courtesy of Feinstein’s at the Nikko

Feinstein’s at the Nikko, one of San Francisco’s last great cabaret rooms, is coming out of its pandemic slumber in day-glo colors, acid-washed denim and a new show that moves way beyond the traditional piano-bass-drums behind a singer idea.

We all love a cabaret diva and a set of songs from the Great American Songbook, but BratPack, which has transformed the room (and especially the stage) at Feinstein’s, is the high-energy, nostalgia-fueled fun fest we need right now.

And by “we” I really mean any GenX-er who graduated high school in the ’80s (greetings from the Reno High School Class of 1985) or who has a deep and abiding love of the John Hughes ouvre. And if you have to ask “what is a John Hughes ouvre?” this show may not be for you.

Hughes was the writer/director who tapped into the ’80s zeitgeist with the kind of generation-specific ferocity that has hardly been seen since. The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink comprise the holy Hughes trinity, and those are the three primary inspirations for BratPack, which takes music from the soundtracks and dialogue from the scripts to craft something in between a musical adaptation and a revue with hints of a really great wedding band and a ship-rocking cruise show thrown in for good measure.

Co-creators Shane Scheel and Anderson Davis take the five basic character outlines from The Breakfast Club – the Athlete, the Basket Case, the Criminal, the Princess and the Brain – and set them loose on the plots and music from Hughes films (which also include Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, Weird Science and Some Kind of Wonderful) as well as other ’80s teen flicks like Say Anything, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and St. Elmo’s Fire (not actually about teens but still feels like teens from a Hughes movie playing grown-up).

The fun is in the mash-up and all the surprises thrown in to delight and amuse ’80s devotees (relics?) throughout the show’s 90 minutes. There are only two dedicated musicians on stage (including musical director Matt Grandy on keyboards), so it’s up to the cast – Rachel Lark (Basket Case), Michael Martinez (Jock), Zahan Mehta (Rebel), Bryan Munar (Geek), May Ramos (Princess) – to add bass, guitar, drums, keyboards and percussion. Scott Taylor-Cole gets to play the enjoyably mean “adult” who takes the form of Ferris’ vengeful school principal and the sadistic detention monitor, Richard “Dick” Vernon. “Don’t mess with the bull, young man. You’ll get the horns.”

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The performers sound great – ’80s power with some contemporary singing competition cascading – and the music is appropriately LOUD as they build an all-encompassing teen story about secret crushes, proms, graduation, locker rooms, detention and fantasies. Their building blocks are songs like “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” (the song we hear the most throughout the evening), “True,” “In Your Eyes,” “If You Leave” and “Melt with You.” There are also non-’80s tunes that factor significantly into some of the movies involved like “Try a Little Tenderness” (Pretty in Pink) and “Twist and Shout” (Ferris Bueller) as well as a pair of David Bowie greats – “Changes” and “Young Americans.”

It’s basically an ’80s-themed party with great music, favorite lines from the movies and re-creations of some of those iconic moments (think kisses over a birthday cake and boom boxes held aloft) – and it’s a whole lot of fun. Even the drinks are a kick – inspired by Capri Sun juice pouches, the brightly colored cocktails come in pouches with straws (there are traditional drinks available as well as food). Everything is ordered and paid for on your phone – one of the nice service improvements that COVID has given us.

Speaking of COVID (sad to even have to talk about something that didn’t exist in the ’80s), Feinstein’s requires proof of vaccination and masks when not eating or drinking. Cast members, who are vaccinated and tested regularly, are all over the room, belting and dancing their hearts out. Those who don’t want “Rebel Yell” sung in close proximity or who don’t want to sing-along with the Simple Minds’ “laaaa, la la la la la” might not be comfortable here.

Otherwise, this high-voltage exercise in cinematic and pop music nostalgia is the perfect place to revel in and re-live nearly 40-year-old memories that only seem to (day)glow brighter with time.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
BratPack continues through Nov. 7 at Feinstein’s at the Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $79-$104. Call 415-394-1100 or visit www.FeinsteinsSF.com.

Lost in the stars with Annaleigh Ashford

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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

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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).

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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”

FOR MORE INFORMATION
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

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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.”

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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.


FOR MORE INFORMATION
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

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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.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
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.

Chita! The liveliest living legend of all

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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.

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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.”

Jason Brock pops a cork at Society Cabaret

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If you only know Jason Brock from his appearances on Simon Cowell’s X Factor televised singing contest and flashing light show, you only know part of Jason Brock. Sure, he’s a fabulous showman with a distinctive sense of style and a killer set of pipes. But he’s not all sequined flash and bravura attitude. He’s also a serious singer and a thoughtful performer who knows how to punctuate his performances with sparkle and sass to ensure that his delightful personality and penchant for improvisation come shining through.

Brock, who makes San Francisco his home, made it into the Top 12 during season two of The X Factor and is now making the cabaret rounds. This weekend he was at Society Cabaret in the Hotel Rex, the intimate cabaret room that feels like a cross between a piano bar, someone’s living room and a hip New York salon. In front of a packed crowd, Brock, with Dwight Okamura at the piano, spent nearly two hours putting his personal stamp on some standards and even made time for a special guest.

With songs like “Old Devil Moon” and “Misty” at the top of the set, it seemed Brock was paying special tribute to Diane Schuur, with similar vocal stylings (even a similar look), and it was nice when Brock, wearing a black suit and many layers of chains around his neck, acknowledged his love for the jazz singer. But then, with “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music, Brock stepped into his own spotlight with a jazzy take on the show tune that Richard Rodgers (a stickler for remaining true to the original melody) would have disliked, but come on. We’ve heard this song a million times. Brock’s sly version even made the tune a little bit sexy (no easy feat).

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Brock can belt like nobody’s business (“All That Jazz”), but he can also slip comfortably into a ballad as he did with “Bein’ Green” and “Lush Life.” He lost the emotional thread of “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” part way through and never quite regained it, but that probably means there are better ballads for him than this one.

Slipping easily into R&B, pop, jazz and even gospel, Brock turned “Glory of Love” into a showstopper and proved he can really swing on “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”

Special guest Kim Nalley, playing with 21-year-old piano wunderkind Joe Warner, offered a stylish pair of tunes: “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” and “I Got Rhythm” before Brock joined her for a stunning (and unrehearsed) duet on “Summertime.”

The main set came to an end with “Louisiana Sunday Afternoon” before Brock’s encores of “New York State of Mind” (the song that got him onto The X Factor) and a heartfelt “What a Wonderful World.” But Brock’s fans weren’t satisfied with just two encores. Even though he didn’t have anything prepared, Brock appeased the clamoring crowd with a totally improvised (and a cappella) medley of Whitney Houston hits including “How Will I Know,” ‘”One Moment in Time,” “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and “The Greatest Love of All.” Nalley jumped back on stage to provide some back-up vocals, and it was like fireworks after a baseball game.

Brock will soon make his debut at New York’s 54 Below, but he promises to be back for an all ’80s show at Martuni’s.

[bonus videos]

If you’re new to the Jason Brock experience, these videos should help:

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Society Cabaret’s next show features Barry Lloyd but the Jan. 25 show is sold out. For a complete calendar (including a few “Showtune Sundays”!), visit www.societycabaret.com. For tickets call 415-857-1896.

Norm Lewis brings on the leading man charm

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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!

Wesla Whitfield’s dazzling Street of Dreams

Wesla and Mike

Wesla Whitfield and Mike Greensill are better than ever, which is saying something as they’ve been better than most for quite some time. The singer and her husband, the arranger/pianist, haven’t been seen regularly here in San Francisco since they moved north a few years back, but anytime they return is cause for attention and celebration, especially when they’re part of the auspicious launch of a new cabaret room.

The lovely space is called Society Cabaret, and it’s tucked away in the Hotel Rex, right off Union Square. It’s not a room designed for performance, but it’s more than suitable, charming even with its comfy-but-elegant New York-style decor, including red tablecloths on little cocktail tables. There’s a small stage area big enough for piano, bass and drums (Whitfield’s set up). Lighting is rudimentary (the room itself never really gets dark), but the key thing is the sound, which is just fine – could be louder, could be warmer, but it’s nice and clear.

How wonderful to have a truly intimate, unfussy cabaret space where you feel comfortable, unpressured and free to just enjoy the music. (There’s no two-drink minimum, but food and drink are available, of course.)

And what music. Whitfield’s new show is Street of Dreams, another of her “I have to call it something, so why not this?” creations that’s simply a reason to sing more than a dozen great tunes and do a little bantering with the band and the audience.

Wesla and Mike

Backed by the inimitable Greensill, whose arrangements are pure gold, and basisst John Wiitala and drummer Vince Lateano on drums – a stellar trio by any standard – Whitfield spends 80 blissful minutes doing what she does best: bringing out the best of the Great American Songbook.

Highlights in this set include a heart-melting “The Folks Who Live on the Hill,” a swingin’ “The Gypsy in My Soul” and a version of Sondheim’s “In Buddy’s Eyes” that is a master class in how underplaying the emotion of a song can maximize its impact.

Greensill does a little singing in this show as well, which is a wonderful addition to the act. He sings an old chestnut called “When the Morning Glories Wake Up in the Morning,” then he and Whitfield duet charmingly on “Little Tin Box” from Fiorello. Other show tunes include “On the Other Side of the Tracks” from Little Me and “Show Me” from My Fair Lady.

Whitfield unearths Cole Porter’s 1941 “Dream Dancing” as a romantic gem and gives the Street of Dreams concept a workout with a lustrous “When You Wish Upon a Star” and a show-ending medley of “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and “When I Grow Too Old to Dream.” She also dusts off “Love Is a Necessary Evil,” a sly tune (by Marvin Fisher and Jack Segal) that features the lyric, “Who needs it? No one but the whole human race.”

There were a few bobbled lyrics on opening night (Porter’s “You’re the Top,” complete with reference to King Kong’s knob, was initially irksome but ultimately conquered), and Greensill joked, “We used to be nervous on opening nights…we used to be much better on opening nights.” But truth be told, these guys are pros. Opening night was delightful – a dream you might even say.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Wesla Whitfield and Mike Greensill’s Street of Dreams continues through Sept. 15 at Society Cabaret in the Hotel Rex, 562 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $35-$75 (no minimums). Call 800-982-2787 or visit www.societycabaret.com.

Donna McKechnie charms in uneven cabaret show

Donna McKechnie

Broadway legend Donna McKechnie, the original Cassie in A Chorus Line, has talked and sung about her life before in San Francisco. In 2001, she brought Inside the Music to the Alcazar Theatre. The Tony Award-winner is back in town, still chatting and warbling about her storied life, but this time in a much smaller (and shorter) show in a much more charming room (Feinstein’s at the Nikko).

Same Place, Another Time begins in 1975 (to the strains of “The Hustle”) as McKechnie, then starring in A Chorus Line, arrives at Studio 54 for the first, moving past the velvet ropes and into the Liza-Mick-Warhol-glittered nightclub. Though from the Midwest, she sings “Native New Yorker” like she means it, though how “Where or When” fits into the scenario never becomes quite clear.

What starts out to be a document of becoming a Broadway star in the ’70s quickly devolves into a “then I went into therapy and got divorced” framework on which to hang some nice, if uninvolving songs. Belying her 72 years, McKechnie looks and sounds gorgeous, and when she deigns to move a little on the small stage, you see the elegance and panache that made her such a thrilling dancer.

This slight, hour-long show, with Eugene Gwozdz on piano, benefits from McKechnie’s abundance of charm, though at Friday’s opening performance she seemed nervous, bobbling a few lyrics and constantly pulling at the lapels of her black, sparkly jacket.

The best moments of the show are its most heartfelt. Discussing the creation of A Chorus Line, McKechnie admitted how wonderful it was to have a song written for her by Marvin Hamlisch and Ed Kleban that expressed her feelings about dance (“The Music and the Mirror,” which she did not sing). But then she said that her life experience was also the basis for the character of Maggie, at which point she movingly sang Maggie’s part of the trio “At the Ballet.”

McKechnie also talked about doing A Chorus Line in Los Angeles and who should show up to take her to dinner but Fred Astaire himself. Imagine dancing with Fred Astaire in his living room.

But what McKechnie doesn’t say but what was almost certainly true, is that Astaire had the privilege of dancing with the extraordinary McKechnie, who was then at the height of her terpsichorean powers.

And there’s the underlying problem with Same Place, Another Time, which is perfectly enjoyable: it doesn’t showcase McKechnie’s depths. Her “Better Luck Next Time” and “I Got Lost in His Arms” demonstrate a dramatic actress ready to tackle meatier, more revealing material that doesn’t necessarily need to be about the performer’s life but about the depths of the song itself.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Donna McKechnie’s Same Place, Another Time is at 7 p.m. Aug. 17. Tickets are $30-$55. Call 866-663-1063 or visit www.ticketweb.com.