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”

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.

Show tunes! `Young Frankenstein,’ `Xanadu’

Am I getting old and cranky or are show tunes getting crappy?

Probably a little of both, and I should say very quickly that there’s plenty of new show music that is thrilling, moving, funny, etc.

But I’ve been listening to the cast albums for Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and the against-all-odds hit stage adaptation of Xanadu. And I really dislike them both.

I have friends who have seen both shows on stage. None of them liked Frankenstein very much (“overproduced,” “dull,” “not nearly as much fun as The Producers“), but all of them enjoyed Xanadu because it was able to laugh at itself (and the tickets, unlike Mr. Brooks’ show, weren’t $400).

After listening to the original cast album ($18.98, Decca Broadway), I wouldn’t pay any amount to see the show, even to see my beloved Andrea Martin, who can do no wrong and comes across better than anybody else on the disc.

Brooks’ music and lyrics are pedestrian at best, and he’s stealing from himself. If a musical motif or gag worked in The Producers, then chances are it pops up here in an only slightly different form.

Aside from Martin’s genuinely funny “He Vas My Boyfriend,” the album’s only other real highlight is Sutton Foster’s yodel on “Roll in the Hay.” I’m supremely disappointed in the material given to Megan Mullally, another favorite. Although, mercifully, Mullally’s version of “Alone,” a song cut from the final show, is included and gives her a little something to play with. If you’r a Mullally fan, as I am, I recommend skipping this disc and going straight to her quirky new CD “Free Again” with her band, Supreme Music Program ($ ). The wonky, wonderful disc ranges from “Up a Lazy River” to “Ave Maria.”

I would probably buy a ticket to Xanadu because the terrible Olivia Newton-John movie holds a place in my heart where bad musicals go to rest (right next to Grease 2 and Newsies). I’ve heard wonderful things about Douglas Carter Beane’s hilarious book and Christopher Ashley’s direction — both of which I’m sure are delightful.

But the music on the original cast album ($19.98, P.S. Classics), taken from the movie with more ELO and Olivia Newton-John songs thrown in to beef things up, is not a pleasant listen. It’s not very funny, the campy treatment of the songs makes them almost unlistenable, and Kerry Butler’s mysterious Australian accent (an homage to Newton-John) comes across as harsh, nasal and grating. Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman, by all accounts the comic livewires of the show, labor to make the funny work on disc, but the laughs — at least for me — were as low as the original Xanadu’s box-office take.

Not wanting to leave this post in a negative place (I’m so California), may I recommend a CD by a group that I was turned on to by a fellow show tune lover: The Puppini Sisters’ “The Rise & Fall of Ruby Woo” (Verbe, $13.98). This is the second disc by the British trio — Marcella Puppini, Stephanie O’Brien and Kate Mullins — and it’s as fantastic as the first. Tight, 1940s girl-group harmonies applied to songs both traditional (“Old Cape Cod,” “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing”) and nontraditional (“Could It Be Magic,” “Spooky,” “Crazy in Love”). This album is more elaborately orchestrated, which is fun, and the girls sound better than ever. Check it out.