Poised and serene in the spotlight, singer Sally Martin portrays a woman who shares the fate of the Sunday New York Times: picked up by a man on Saturday night, spread out on the floor, and then discarded. But her cabaret performance here at Windows, an upstairs bar on 17th Street, on a Monday in September is itself news.
Washington and New York are only 233 miles apart, but when it comes to cabaret, they might as well be on separate planets. This week in Manhattan more than 100 seasoned and novice nightclub entertainers will gather at Town Hall for the weeklong Ninth Annual Cabaret Convention sponsored by the Mabel Mercer Foundation, an organization founded in memory of the legendary British-born chanteuse. Two Monday evenings last month, in Windows’ 45-seat room above the Dupont Italian Kitchen, 11 D.C. performers launched the first indigenous cabaret series in living memory.
The organizers of the Sept. 14 series preview, Wendy Lane Bailey, Jay Crowder, and Alan Ring, had not expected to fill the room, let alone turn away several dozen people. Six performers offered quarter-hour samples of solo shows they plan to present later this season. Martin, who has worked New York’s cabaret circuit and released a debut CD, Journeys, opened the evening with several introspective ballads before her unexpectedly ribald “He Knew How to Read Me.” She held the crowd, even during an unintentionally risible Jeanette MacDonald moment in the Craig Carnelia song “Flight,” when she fluttered her hands above her head and wordlessly wailed in a none-too-secure soprano.
One of cabaret’s special strengths is intimacy, affording a rapport between artist and listener that has become nearly extinct in an age when live music is staged in cavernous auditoriums. Short of a shower stall, Windows’ tiny showroom is about as intimate as a music venue can get. But of the six performers, only Martin and baritone David Torresen, who presented a quartet of lively, seldom-heard Cole Porter compositions, sang torather than atthe audience. Several of the singers, accustomed to musical theater projection, bellowed into hand mikes so loudly that the windows rattled. Charles Williams’ hard-sell George Gershwin tribute (including selections from what he weirdly referred to as “Porno and Stress”) was more scaled to the MCI Center than a living-room-size club. Judy Simmons, a solid pro who recently appeared in a Signature Theatre Sondheim revue, also went over the top in both her volume and coy mugging, though she received the evening’s warmest reception.
Dark, diminutive Joseph Perna, garbed in black pants and a white pleated shirt with rows of brass buttons, used stylized movement to create a persona for each of his well-chosen selections: a bewildered time-traveler (“I’m a Stranger Here Myself”), a starving outcast (“One Meat Ball”), an insecure Pierrot (“Tell Me on a Sunday”), and a raunchy prison matron (“When You’re Good to Mama”). Smart, eccentric, and trailing slightly sinister traces of Joel Grey, Peter Lorre, and Jean-Louis Barrault, Perna is onto something, a fact attested to by his upcoming booking at Manhattan’s Don’t Tell Mama. In an embarrassingly stale attempt at topical humor, comic and therapist Margy Seides hauled in a box purportedly swiped from Kenneth Starr’s front lawn and displayed its contentsa cigar, a stained blue dress, and so onto deservedly tombal silence. An attempt to recoup by singing “Making Love Alone,” a paean to masturbation popularized by Bernadette Peters, also fell flat.
The evening’s unforeseen success prompted Bailey, Crowder, and Ring to add an extra performance to the second preview already planned for Sept. 28th. In the interim, they reconfigured the showroom’s performance area and seating, found the bug that was causing weird vibrations in the electric piano’s upper octaves, and scheduled the first engagements for the forthcoming Windows’ solo artist series (see sidebar for details).
Bailey, who trained at New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Art and the H-B Studio, founded the D.C. Cabaret Network in August 1997. The 20-member organization aims to create an environment where performers can experiment and hone their skills, and to develop venues for cabaret artists. Last June, the Network presented two performances of Decadence, Desire & Destiny: An Evening of Cabaret in the German Tradition featuring Martin, Bailey, and Buzz Mauro at the D.C. Jewish Community Center. (The original cast reprises the show at the Lyceum in Old Town Alexandria on Nov. 6 and 7.)
At one Network open-mike evening, Bailey met Crowder, who is completing his doctorate in music at the University of Maryland, and Ring, a former dancer who is handling the business affairs for the new cabaret series. Crowder plays piano at Windows, and asked the owner for permission to use a dining-room annex as an occasional performance space. Given the green light, the trio decided to launch their series with two previews, at which artists would contribute their services to create a pool of advertising funds for their upcoming solo shows.
Ring MC’d the second evening, and he kicked it off with an anxious but good-natured rendition of a song from the revue When Pigs Fly. Striking, vivacious Tracy McMullin sang three show tunes in keys that forced her to reach too high and push too hard. Wendall Creasy, in drag, delivered three numbers exploring contrasting female sensibilities. Bailey, in a warm voice, introduced songs from her upcoming performance piece Strictly Personal, which was inspired by classified ads. Torresen returned with a few more Porter rarities, and the show closed with the jaw-droppingly talented Jane Pesci Townsend, a singer-actress with a big, beautiful voice and a vibrant personality. She needs to scale down her energy and volume to suit Windows’ tiny space, but Townsend is such a winning performer that one doesn’t mind being mugged by her.
Bailey believes that the best contemporary songwriting, emotionally and intellectually, is coming not from Broadway but from the pens of Portia Nelson, Amanda McBroom, John Bucchino, and other cabaret composers. She, Crowder, and Ring are offering area audiences an opportunity to hear this music, which, hitherto, has been accessible only on obscure recordings. Rather than supporting homegrown talent, Washington too often lazily imports and applauds out-of-towners. Wisely, the new D.C. cabaret movement has decided to bypass oleaginous Michael Feinstein, tone-deaf Andrea Marcovicci, and other inexplicably overrated Gothamites to develop its own artists. What’s happening at Windows is a small but worthy beginning.CP
The Cabaret Network can be reached at (703) 960-3098 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
Oct. 9 and 10:
Heart and Soul: The Music of Hoagy Carmichael featuring singer Beverly Cosham accompanied by Alex Hassan, 8 p.m. at the Lyceum, 201 S. Washington St., Alexandria, Va. Admission: $15. Reservations: (703) 548-9044.
Not In Kansas Anymore featuring Judy Simmons with musical director Jay Crowder, 8 p.m.; Strictly Personal: Tales of Lust, Longing & Lunacy from the Pages of the Classifieds featuring Wendy Lane Bailey with musical director George Fulginiti-Shakar, 9:30 p.m. at Windows, 17th and R Sts. NW. Admission: $10 per show or $15 for both with a two-drink minimum. Reservations: (301) 565-0566.
Singer-songwriter Amanda McBroom, 7:30 p.m. at the Barns of Wolf Trap, 1624 Trap Road, Vienna, Va. Admission: $20. Reservations: (703) 218-6500 or www.wolf-trap.org.
Oct. 17 (and subsequent Saturdays
Broadway & Beyond, featuring George Wall, Lynn Sharp Spears, George Chapin, Lauren Rowland, and Ron Sarro, 8:30 and 10 p.m. at Pulcinella, 6852 Old Dominion Drive, McLean, Va. Reservations: (703) 893-7777.
Tracy McMullin, 8 p.m.; Wendall Creasy, 9:30 p.m. at Windows, 17th and R Sts. NW. Reservations: (301) 565-0566.
Open-mike piano bar with Jay Crowder Sundays 7-11 p.m. and Thursdays 8 p.m.-midnight at Windows, 17th and R Sts. NW.