My busy month of cabaret-going continued with shows by Brad Simmons & Lennie Watts, Brie Cassil, and Natalie Douglas:
Blue Eyed Soul
In their show Blue Eyed Soul, at Don’t Tell Mama, Brad Simmons & Lennie Watts performed popular hits from the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, and took me back to the AM radio of my youth...a lovely trip indeed!
Blue eyed soul was an expression coined by a Philadelphia DJ in 1964, as a code to his listeners, letting them know that the artist they were hearing was white; The Righteous Brothers being the first to acquire the moniker. I had always thought of Lennie Watts as a blue eyed soul singer, although I’ve heard him sing in many styles over the years. Brad Simmons, however was a new discovery for me. Simmons and Watts met at the O’Neill Cabaret Conference, where Watts has served as a Master Teacher, and Simmons as Associate Artistic Director. They paired up to create a show filled with this music they both loved, and it was a great match!
Their opening number set the tone for the evening, combining Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music,” with George Michael’s “Freedom ’90.” Ambrosia’s “Biggest Part Of Me” showcased the blend of both singers’ voices, as well as Simmons’ gorgeous falsetto wail. We heard Robbie Dupree’s “Steal Away” paired with one of my favorite hits of the 70’s, “Dance With Me,” by Orleans, and “Son of a Preacher Man” had a funkier, more gospel-like feel than Dusty Springfield’s original. A fabulous Hall & Oates medley featured no less than seven of the duo’s hits, and a stunning version of “What You Won’t Do For Love” took the original recording’s slow groove and turned it into a ballad of dark longing, with heart-tugging, laser sharp emotional focus in Watts’ vocal. As they wrapped up the show with the original blue eyed soul hit; The Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” I realized that I had known every song in the set! This was more than just a nostalgia show; for my generation, this was our Great American Songbook!
The Shape of Me
Brie Cassil might be described as Celine Dion-meets Rocker Chick-meets Broadway Baby!
Cassil is a vocal powerhouse; a singer, actress, and composer who’s appeared Off-Broadway in The Marvelous Wonderettes, Marty Thomas Presents DIVA: The Music of Celine Dion, and all over town with her rock band Rebel. Her show, The Shape of Me, at The Green Room 42, showed off all sides of this multifaceted performer, and the packed house adored her from the get-go!
She began the evening, appropriately enough, with Celine Dion’s “The Power of Love,” which showed her bell-like tones, which transitioned into a phenomenal power belt. She followed that up with Queen’s “I Want to Break Free,” doing a quick change from gown to jeans, a breezy top and a hip leather jacket. She moved right into an all-out, balls-to-the-wall medley by P!nk - now we were seeing the rocker chick! But where was our Broadway diva? Well, she soon gave us “Castle on a Cloud,” from Les Miserables, and powerful duet from Jekyll & Hyde.
As the evening progressed, we heard Van Halen’s “Summer Nights,” where Cassil’s voice evoked Heart’s Ann Wilson, Aerosmith’s “Cryin’,” and Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door!” She also showed off her acting skills with numbers from Rent, Starmites, and a beautiful “Endless Night,” from The Lion King. She saved the best for last, with a medley from the Broadway smash, Wicked. And let me tell you - this young lady needs to play Elphaba! Like, right NOW!
The title The Shape of Me, seemed to reference the mix of influences that made Brie Cassil into the person she is today, and with this show, she gave us a fascinating window into her life and talent!
A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald
According to Natalie Douglas, Ella Fitzgerald had delicious taste in music. In her tribute to Fitzgerald, Douglas sang that music deliciously!
Douglas, a ten-time MAC Award winner, has done tribute shows to many artists, including Nina Simone, Nat King Cole, Shirley Bassey, Barbra Streisand, Dolly Parton, and more. But this evening, at Birdland Jazz Club, it was all about the First Lady of Song, Miss Ella Fitzgerald.
In her black tulle party dress, Douglas looked too darned hot, and opened the show with “Too Darn Hot!” We heard a toe-tapping “Cow Cow Boogie,” and a sultry version of “Love For Sale,” with Douglas running her fingers up and down her body as she sang ‘Who’s prepared to pay the price for a trip to paradise?’ One of the most dramatic moments came with “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” by Ella’s favorite composer, Duke Ellington. In it, Douglas’ acting came to the fore, with a heart tugging melancholy in her voice, and a longing in her face and eyes that spoke volumes and made her exquisite vocal even more poignant. In one of Ella’s signature tunes, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” Douglas played with the audience, asking for a little ‘Call & Response.’ And while it didn’t quite work as planned, it was still tremendous fun and the audience adored it! Hey, that’s jazz!
Her fantastic band - bassist Mimi Jones, drummer Shirazette Tinin, and the amazing Billy Stritch at the keys, provided a big band sound, but with gorgeous jazz club dynamics, which never overpowered the vocals.
Douglas closed out the evening with Lennon & McCartney’s “Can’t Buy Me Love,” an example of how Fitzgerald liked to record many different styles of music, and Douglas’ rendition was fresh and fun. A perfect finale to a lovely evening!
Douglas will be back at Birdland with more tribute shows, including one to Miss Shirley Bassey, and another to Cher! I know I’ll be there for that!