Chicago Cabaret Stars light up Park West
Howard Reich-Chicago Tribune
October 18, 2016
Howard Reich-Chicago Tribune
So Much Talent, so little time.
In the course of roughly three hours, Chicago’s burgeoning cabaret community reminded the crowd at Park West on Sunday evening what fearless storytelling and dramatic song interpretation are all about.
They sang tunes of hope and despair, joy and regret in Chicago Cabaret Professionals’ annual gala, this year titled “Sentimental Journeys: Musical Tours of the Heart.” Some works were brisk, some languorous, all designed to evoke keen emotional response. Most did.
True, not every artist successfully sold the song. A few confused screaming with drama, assaulting the ears as well as the craft of the music they sang (you know who you are)
But for the most part, these performers — young, old and somewhere in between — brought credit and, sometimes, glory to the art of cabaret in this city.
No one enjoyed more stage time, nor sang more effectively, than Joan Curto, who was being honored on this night for the caliber of her art and the dedication she has shown to the scene.
Bill Davenport, a former partner in the city’s top cabaret — Davenport’s, on North Milwaukee Avenue — flew in from the West Coast to present the Chicago Cabaret Professionals award to Curto.
When he stepped up to the microphone, he told the audience that Curto had given him specific instructions about his speech: “Do not make me sound like a friggin’ saint,” she’d said, Davenport told the crowd.
“No problem,” he quipped before going on to rhapsodize about the first time he heard Curto, when she auditioned for him at Davenport’s in 1999.
Since then, Curto has emerged as one of the city’s leading cabaret artists, and she showed why in a series of songs that proved you don’t have to yell to make your point. Her version of Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” accompanied by Beckie Menzie’s jazz trio, helped listeners temporarily forget Frank Sinatra’s definitive reading. By toying with the original rhythms, inserting dramatic changes of tempo and otherwise rephrasing the tune, Curto made something fresh of it.
Jerry Herman’s “If He Walked Into My Life,” from “Mame,” surely brought tears to many parents’ eyes. Curto introduced it by recalling her life as a young singer trying to raise three boys, which meant dragging them to rehearsals and subjecting them to a lifetime of show tunes. And Curto’s soaring account of “I Am What I Am,” from Herman’s “La Cage Aux Folles,” conveyed power but also depth of sound, putting an exclamation point on Curto’s big night.
But not everything in this show was quite so weighty. Singers Laura Freeman, Marianne Murphy Orland and Menzie recalled the Andrews Sisters in a 1940s-tinged version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” (from “South Pacific”), sung with plenty of sass and smiles.
David Edelfelt and KT McCammond duetted nimbly in Edelfelt’s “I Wanna Be Better,” which cast Edelfelt’s magisterial bass-baritone alongside McCammond’s reedy voice. Beneath its gently comedic facade, the song conveyed a bit of philosophy designed to help any aspiring star deal with the tough realities of a life in show business.
Tom Michael’s instrument seems to get deeper, darker and more persuasive each year, and the way he caressed “This Nearly Was Mine” (also from “South Pacific”) spoke to the continued maturing of his art, even if in some passages he pushed his voice more than he should have.
Nan Mason, a veteran Chicago singer, struck a delicate balance between pathos and courage in Rodgers and Hart’s “Ten Cents a Dance,” a tune that perhaps only an artist who has seen it all can make the most of.
And Carla Gordon’s gently imploring version of “Prayer for America,” which she wrote with Wayne Richards as an ode to immigrants, carried multiple meanings in this election year.
When the entire cast took the stage to sing — what else? — “Sentimental Journey,” the sense of community that drives and defines Chicago’s cabaret scene was right there for all to see and hear.
Joan Curto celebrates Sondheim with smarts and savvy
Joan Curto, sings at Davenport’s in Chicago on March 7, 2015. (Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune)
What would we do without Stephen Sondheim?
The ingenuity of his lyrics, the conversational cadences of his melodies and the jazz-tinged allure of his harmonies brought American songwriting to a level of sophistication that never really has been surpassed.
Like Cole Porter before him (and Irving Berlin before that), Sondheim fused word and melody so seamlessly that one hardly can recall one without evoking the other. Better still, Sondheim infused American song with all the ambiguities, paradoxes and contradictions of everyday life as they never had been expressed before.
All of which poses a challenge to any singer who dares present an evening’s worth of Sondheim’s work. With revered Sondheim interpreters such as Elaine Stritch and Julie Wilson having set a lofty standard for this repertoire, only the bravest soloists need take it on today.
Chicago cabaret singer Joan Curto did just that on Saturday night at Davenport’s, launching her month-long celebration of Sondheim’s forthcoming 85th birthday on March 22. She may not project as huge a personality as Stritch (who does?) or summon as gutsy a delivery as Wilson (who could?), but Curto offered her own savvy, brainy, shrewdly delivered approach to this music.
For Curto didn’t just sing the tunes — she acted the characters for whom Sondheim wrote. At the same time, she showed unmistakable musical maturity in taking on Sondheim classics and obscurities alike, never rushing tempos in dramatic passages or taking ballads too slowly. Here was Sondheim singing in which every turn of phrase and interpretive choice had been carefully thought out, as if performed by a formidable stage actor who has lived with a role long enough to inhabit it.
Curto has been singing Sondheim in Chicago for decades, in theatrical productions and interwoven into her own shows, but not in a prominent solo show devoted exclusively to his music. “Joan Curto Sings Sondheim: Everybody Says Don’t” demonstrated what can happen when a performer waits until she is ready.
Perhaps no Sondheim musical conveys more bittersweet, worldly wise perspectives than “Follies,” and Curto delved unflinchingly into its sometimes cynical, sometimes almost-hopeful sentiments. “Could I Leave You?” amounts to an anthem of romantic regret and rage, and Curto delivered it as if it were an operatic aria. She opened gently, understating the sarcasm that drips from these lyrics. In due time, however, she built to a full roar of anger, the edge in her voice matched by the aggressiveness of her stance. Pity the husband who heard those truths dispatched with such relish.
“I’m Still Here” remains the wise-cracking tour de force of “Follies,” and Curto reveled in its Jazz Age brassiness. She swung rhythms freely and fired off its zingers with aplomb, along the way revealing new meanings on some very familiar lyrics. When she hit the final crescendo — backed by Beckie Menzie’s orchestral pianism and Jim Cox’s buoyant bass playing — Curto reminded listeners that there’s a plenty of heart underneath Sondheim’s world-weary exterior.
A self-styled “marriage medley” drawn from several Sondheim shows cast some light on the subject of matrimony but much more on the songwriter’s insights into the ups and downs that make romantic relationships go ’round. Of course it culminated with “Being Alive,” a more knowing statement on how and why we love than most.
Elsewhere in the show, Curto made wickedly clear that “Can That Boy Foxtrot!” is definitely not about dancing, but she proved a shade less compelling in “Send in the Clowns.” Then, again, Sondheim’s sole “hit” has been so often performed and recorded that perhaps Curto still is searching for her own way into it.
More important, though, both the spirit and the letter of Sondheim’s music were apparent throughout this evening, Curto capturing the acidic quality of the composer’s most withering material and avoiding sentimentality in (somewhat) lighter fare.
Ultimatetly, this show marks a high point in Curto’s cabaret career, as well as an illuminating way to celebrate the riches of Sondheim’s art.
“Joan Curto Sings Sondheim: Everybody Says Don’t” plays at 8 p.m. Saturdays in March at Davenport’s, 1383 N. Milwaukee Ave.; $22 plus two-drink minimum at 773-278-1830 or davenportspianobar.com.
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Cabaret Artist Joan Curto Finds the Heart and Humor in Sondheim
Posted: 03/18/2015 5:28 pm EDT Updated: 03/18/2015 5:59 pm EDT
Stephen Sondheim ain’t for sissies — especially if you’re a performer. His lyrics are smart and dense, and his music often veers into counter-intuitive rhythms and phrases. And, most importantly, his songs are character driven, and while they can certainly succeed in a presentational format, such as a cabaret show, it takes a certain level of performer to extract these numbers from the shows they originated in to make them “sing.”
Thankfully, Joan Curto, who’s celebrating 16 years as a beloved cabaret performer in Chicago, is such an artist. In celebrating the composer’s 85th birthday, Curto has assembled a tight evening that doesn’t shy away from some of the trickiest tunes from Sondheim’s collection, including a clever opening number that mashes together “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story and the opening number from Company. Another highlight includes a medley of all the various second act production numbers for the character Phyllis in the musical Follies.
Curto has the world-weariness and nuance to lend credibility some of the weightier numbers, including a plaintive “Send in the Clowns,” as well the sly playfulness that inspires “I Never Do Anything Twice” and “Can That Boy Foxtrot” — both tunes that delight in double-entendre, and where Curto seems to do her best work.
The night I caught her act, Curto did seem a little off her game with her banter and a few of the more complex lyrical passages, but anyone who can recover a lost lyric in the twisty-turny “Could I Leave You” without the entire number crashing down around their ankles (I’ve seen it happen with this particular number before) is an artist with clout.
And when Curto is on her game, such as when she delivers her authoritative “I’m Still Here,” stand back. Something is coming, indeed.
Joan Curto Sings Sondheim plays every Saturday in March at Davenports Piano Bar — but is currently sold out for the rest of the run! However, the show is set to come back in September. Visit davenportspianobar.com for more info.
Joan Curto Gives Her Audience The Magnificent Gift Of Cole Porter
Reviewed by: RUSSELL GOELTENBODT
“Do you ever feel as though that you were born in the wrong era? Do you wish you were born in the 1920’s or 30’s when music was sophisticated and going to clubs to listen to music was an event?” These are the questions that cabaret singer Joan Curto asked at the beginning of her engagement at Davenport’s Cabaret Club in Chicago’s Wicker Park. She continued by saying, “This would also be a time when ladies and gentleman would go to clubs, get dressed up in their finest, and listen to the music of Cole Porter, and George and Ira Gershwyn, and other great composers. This was a time when listening to this music was an extreme gift.” Joan Curto turned back time and gave her audience that gift last Wednesday evening, by transporting them to that time by recreating the beautiful music of Cole Porter.
Joan, who is accompanied by the incredible musical styling of Beckie Menzie, with Jim Cox on bass, made this a beautiful musical experience. During the show, Joan, who obviously did her research, told the interesting story of the life of Cole Porter with many antic dotes and quotes that were taken from letters he had written during his life. Joan continued to tell that story through Cole Porter’s music. Some of the facts that I did not know was that Cole Porter did not have a hit until he was 37 years old. Additionally, Joan further explained that Cole Porter composed over 800 songs, in which 500 of them were hits. This was a very impressive accomplishment for the short lifetime of his work. Joan also quoted Cole Porter who once described his music as a cross between Eddie Cantor and the Duke of Windsor, “the high of the high brows combined with the low of the lowbrows”. Not only did Joan sing the many Cole Porter favorites, she managed to sing many of Cole Porter’s songs that you don’t often hear. To me, this was a real treat! The favorites included, “It’s Delightful”,”From This Moment On”, My Heart Belongs, to Daddy”, “Night and Day”; to name a few. Joan also proceeded to sing some of the Cole Porter songs that we don’t often hear. These included, “Just Like To Kick it Around”, “The Laziest Gal in Town”, and “Unlucky in Love”. Two of my new Cole Porter favorites are, “The Leader of the Big Time Band” and “The Oyster”; which Joan sang with gusto and comedy. Joan also told the story of Cole Porter spending many months of his life in Paris, where she was fortunate to make the trip last year. Joan then proceeded to sing a beautiful arrangement of “I Love Paris”. This arrangement, along with many others was written by the musical genius of Beckie Menzie who is not only a wonderful arranger and music director; she is a talented cabaret artist as well.
Along with the stories and the music, Joan said she is proving how much of a musical nerd she is. Joan brought out some letters from Cole Porter along with some other artifacts that she collected on e-bay. One of which was a play bill from 1939 from the show “Leave it to Me”, which featured Sophie Tucker. Leave it to Me first appeared in Chicago at the Auditorium Theater. Most of the shows that Cole Porter wrote during the 1930’s were “small on part, big on song”, meaning that these shows were mostly musical with a very small plot line. Joan also pointed out that during that time, many of the theater stars, such as Sophie Tucker, would go out and perform a number of sets at clubs after their theater performance. Many of these performers would stay up until the wee hours of the morning. The work would be exhausting, with very little pay. However, during that time, it seemed both rewarding to both the artists and the audience.
A few months ago, I had reviewed another cabaret show. During that review, I noted that performing in a cabaret show is very different from performing in a concert. There are some very basic, yet necessary requirements for cabaret. The artist must create a story, and tell that story through the music they are singing. The story should be natural and portrayed as a natural conversation with the audience to bring them into the life of the story. Joan Curto proceeded to do this with “Cole Porter: From Major to Minor”, and she did it beautifully throughout her show. Joan who is celebrating her 15th year performing at Davenports, made the show flow naturally, making it a truly entertaining experience. Joan brought the audience to a club during the 1930’s, transporting them to that time and place where music was entertaining, elegant and sophisticated. Therefore, I strongly recommend seeing this show. It is a wonderful and enjoyable evening of true talent and cabaret magic. Joan proves that she is a true cabaret professional. She is truly Delightful!
Joan Curto Sings Cole Porter: From Major to Minor runs until February 10th at Davenports Piano Bar, 1383 N. MIlwaukee Ave, Chicago. Performances are Wednesday – Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 7pm. For reservations call 773.278.1830 or visit www.DavenportsPianoBar.com
Joan Curto celebrates Cole Porter in de’lovely musical revue
Chi Theatre Addict
In one of several charming anecdotes told by Joan Curto in her new Cole Porter cabaret show now playing at Davenports Piano Bar through February 10, she talks about how Broadway legend (and former Porter muse) Patricia Morison told Curto over lunch, “Oh, honey. Cabaret is dead.”
Watching Curto revel in every Porter innuendo and entendre, it’s impossible to believe such a claim. Not only does she celebrate the spirit of Porter’s wit-filled lyrics, Curto has a voice that can go big without being brash and sweet without turning saccarine. It’s also fun watching her take on such juicy numbers at “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” a number made famous by Mary Martin (and, in turn, made Mary Martin famous) and “I’m Unlucky at Gambling” from the 1929 musical Fifty Million Frenchmen.
Yes: it’s a good thing that we have the likes of Curto to carry on the cabaret tradition, even if times have changed. Through her sheer joy and artistry, she turns an evening of tunes from a master such as Porter into an event. Perhaps even moreso, she’s selected several numbers unfamiliar to me. When she could easily have sailed through renditions of “I Get a Kick out of You” and “Anything Goes,” she chooses the comical “Laziest Gal in Town” and “Tale of the Oyster,” an obscure tune cut from Fifty Million Frenchmen as critics found the number in poor taste.
It also helps that she has backed herself with exquisite musicians, including the irreplaceable Beckie Menzie (who’s celebrating 25 years in the Chicago music scene at Mayne Stage on March 3) at piano and Jim Cox on bass.
“Joan Curto Sings Cole Porter – From Major to Minor” plays through Feb. 10 at Davenport’s Piano Bar.
More info here.
Curto digs into Herman canon, and her own voice
Shaking the Blues Away
One can expect fine work from Joan Curto these days, but in Shaking the Blues Away, Curto flexes her cabaret muscles in new ways and it pays off. First, Curto stepped outside the box performing numbers not part of the Great American Songbook. If it’s something of a stretch to place Julie Gold’s “Good Night, New York” into a show focused on discovering, then overcoming, love and money blues, we don’t much care. In this song, Curto makes the richest emotional connection with her audience, finding delicate layers of hope and remembrance Gold’s lyrics encompass. With Lyle Lovett’s “God Will,” Curto shares a funny, true reflection of a relationship gone south in which the spurned lover will not forgive, although God will. Second, more than in prior shows, Curto shared some personal history. Cole Porter’s “I’m Unlucky at Gambling” resonated because it was preceded by a reflection about an uncle who was a professional gambler beset with economic ups and downs. Later in the show, when she talked about roller skating in her cigarette-girl costume at the roller rink Halloween party, we could relate to memories encompassing both the silly and the dear. Curto sings great and looks great in the green gown. To quote Elvis, “I’m all shook up.”
November 30, 2009
Curto puts her stamp on styles of Ethel Merman, Mary Martin
By Howard Reich
Tribune arts critic
November 17, 2007
Anyone who follows Broadway lore does not often mention Ethel Merman and Mary Martin in the same breath.
The two venerable singers, after all, represented practically opposing ways of addressing a song. Merman sang as if a trumpet had been lodged in her larynx; Martin hardly could have brought more gentility and grace to the musical stage.
Yet their two sharply contrasted sensibilities stand at the center of “Brassy, Sassy & Classy,” an uncommonly effective Merman/Martin homage that finds common ground shared by two singular divas.
Perhaps only a vocalist as adept as Chicagoan Joan Curto could take on the legacies of Merman and Martin with equal aplomb, as she did before a full house Thursday night at Davenport’s (the show runs through Sunday). Though Curto didn’t mimic either artist, she evoked the brass and bravura of Merman’s manner, as well as the nuance and subtlety of Martin’s finest work.
That’s not to say, however, that Curto belted a song the way Merman did. Historic recordings of Merman reveal a singer capable of blasting high notes into the farthest reaches of the upper balcony, a valuable skill in the era before microphones were commonplace on the Broadway stage.
That brand of singing (or yelling) probably would not fare so well today, for high decibels alone cannot pass for genuine interpretation. So it’s something of a relief that Curto never tried to imitate Merman’s wails. Even when Curto was going full throttle, as in a medley from the epic musical “Gypsy,” she brought enough tonal support and warmth of tone to her fortissimo notes to make them a pleasure to hear.
Similarly, Curto never attempted to duplicate the silvery sheen of Martin’s singing, which would be a similarly impossible mission. Yet Curto’s honeyed middle range and sumptuously voiced high notes in “I’m in Love With a Wonderful Guy” showed that she shares Martin’s knack for caressing a melody line.
The final allure of this show drew from Curto’s distinctive way of re-interpreting music of age-old Broadway shows (aided by Beckie Menzie’s jazz-tinged pianism). The surging rhythms with which Curto ignited “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” and “Some People” (from “Gypsy”) and the sense of reverie she brought to “Speak Low” (from “One Touch of Venus”) attested to the originality of her vision.
Not that she always hits her target. Curto never quite captured the despair in Cole Porter’s “Down in the Depths on the Ninetieth Floor,” a world-weary piece that can elude even the savviest performer.
In the end, though, “Brassy, Sassy & Classy” not only rekindled memories of Merman and Martin but poetically built upon their legacies.
“Brassy, Sassy & Classy” plays at 8 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday at Davenport’s, 1383 N. Milwaukee Ave.; $20; 773-278-1830.
Brassy, Sassy & Classy: The Songs of Ethel Merman and Mary Martin
Brassy, Sassy & Classy: The Songs of Ethel Merman and Mary Martin
Does the title refer to the subject or the artist? It’s impossible to tell, because it applies so perfectly to both. Sounding better than she ever has (which has never been less than superb) and ensconced in an expertly designed format and selection of songs, Joan Curto delivered an evening unbridled joy mixed with passionate expressions from the heart and infectious exuberance as she took her audience at Davenport’s through the songs and careers of two of Broadway’s greatest stars.
With Beckie Menzie providing amazing support at the keyboard (her segment of You’re Just In Love during the overture was mindboggling), Curto gave out just the right amount of background on her subjects and their songs, keeping it brief but interestingly informative. But we weren’t there to learn, we were there to be serenaded, and Curto carried us away from the first upbeat. Tearing things up with The Leader of a Big Time Band and slinking (ultimately) through My Heart Belongs to Daddy, Curto constantly amazed during the set, especially when it came to the ballads — and one that isn’t but became one in her gentle caress. There was the heart-melting tenderness of I Got Lost In His Arms and That’s Him, but it was in the slowed-down hushed romanticism of I’m Flyin’ that Curto transformed the usually jaunty nugget into a juicy morsel of drop-dead gorgeous love song. It was a mesmerizing moment in a captivating hour of perfection.
March 30, 2007
An evening of pure magic…