Saturday, February 18, 2012

Oscar Tunes, Cabaret Style: "Red Carpet Memories" (Live Review)

With the Grammys now in the bag, Hollywood turns its sights to the next and final event of the year-end entertainment awards spree: the king of kudosfests known as the Oscars. While within the Grammys the Recording Academy throws some institutional loving toward nearly all other major art forms - film and television (Song Written for Visual Medium; Film Score Soundtrack; Music Videos Short and Long), theatre (Cast Album); literature (Spoken Word and Comedy Albums, Album Notes), and even visual art (Album Package), few of them reciprocate. There's no Pulitzer or Nobel Prize for Songwriting; the Tonys can honor Mamma Mia! without recognizing ABBA; and there are, to my knowledge, few exhibits of 21st century album artwork touring the major museums of fine art (yet...but that would be very cool). Perhaps worse than omission, though, is the current treatment of music (especially songwriting) by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, whose newly implemented eligibility rules and voting procedures display such hasty disregard for the category that only two songs from 2011...TWO...managed to secure a Best Song nomination this year. (Never fear - there are still separate categories for Sound and Sound Effects Editing. Whew!) Fortunately, in the heart of Hollywood mere yards away from where the Oscars will soon be doled out, a small but gifted consort of theatre folks are doing their part to pick up the film industry's slack with Red Carpet Memories, an intimate and entertaining musical revue composed of 21 songs that scored Oscar nominations over the years.

The show was conceived and directed by Alexander Georgakis, a skilled musician and alumnus of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, and features a cast of six delivering mostly faithful renditions of songs from 1935 to 2007. It's a mixed bill, from standards like "Cheek to Cheek" to pop crossovers like "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" to offbeat outliers like Bob Dylan's "Things Have Changed." Though the cabaret setting (the show goes on at Twist restaurant and bar in the Renaissance Hotel) might make the night appear like a choir's variety show, Red Carpet Memories is still a theatrical endeavor executed by theatrical artists: each of the singers fills a certain role across often disparate numbers. Brett Ryback, small of stature and large on charisma, plays Astaire to Jessica Bernard's Ginger; Rogelio Douglas Jr. wows as the trusty, effortless tap-dancing tenor; handsome blonde James Snyder, who looks like he was pulled straight from the touring cast of Oklahoma!, covers an admirably diverse ticket (including the Dylan song) that decisively subverts his matinee idol appearance; Rent's final Mimi Lexi Lawson adds a few dashes of spice (and legs) when needed.

It's rocker Thomasina Abate who goes home with the show, though - by design, certainly, but blessedly a much cleverer design than a lazier or less creative musical director than Georgakis might have concocted. Abate is the kind of performer who captivates immediately upon entering a performance space, even when she's not the focus of the action. Indeed, though Abate's supporting bits in the opening number (Carly Simon's "Let the River Run") had somehow already suggested her spunk and sass, it's not until the penultimate number of the first half that she steps up to command her due as the night's resident showstopper. It's a good thing in this economy that Georgakis passed on the scenery, because it wouldn't have survived Abate's chomping teeth in "The Man That Got Away," (video below) from the Judy Garland version of A Star Is Born which, in a genius bit of interpretation, she performs in the style of Barbra Streisand in A Star Is Born. (Somewhere in the beyond, Paul Lynde's head was exploding.) As if that weren't enough, Abate's other number is Eminem's "Lose Yourself," thankfully avoiding the predictable if odd cliche of tapping one of the black performers, who are put to better use channeling a flirtatious Garland on "The Trolley Song" (Lawson) or Peabo Bryson on "Beauty and the Beast" (Douglas Jr.).

Cabaret is a tricky art, one relegated to the nostalgic pubs of New York for decades until its slow-burn revival Los Angeles revival several years ago, with help from the small community of displaced or traveling Broadway performers in town for music careers, television work or open-ended revivals of Wicked. While Red Carpet Memories, an early offering from the new cabaret production team The Coterie, doesn't quite reach the heights of the recent film music shows at Barre on Vermont, it's a solid start that demonstrates the advantages of the wisdom of its co-founders, Amber Cassell (formerly publicity manager for the Barre shows) and performer Julie Garnye, as close to a seasoned veteran as Los Angeles gets. The mix of logistical and artistic leadership is what separates The Coterie from its predecessors, and there's enormous potential already turning out great results at the gate. A better venue would be helpful - while the technicians did a splendid job accounting for it, the space is not especially suited for performance and it's pricey as hell - but judging from Red Carpet Memories, The Coterie has already developed a quality, artistically adventurous reputation that sacrifices little if anything in terms of pleasing the crowds. And if AMPAS continues mucking up the tradition of honoring great songs from its (usually) great pictures, cabaret might be all we've got.

Red Carpet Memories runs through Sunday, February 19 at Twist in the Renaissance Hotel, Hollywood. Tickets and info at
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