Chicago Cabaret Stars light up Park West

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.