Critical Thoughts: Direction Can Help/Direction Can Hurt—A Tale of Two Singers

May 22, 2024

I recently saw two singers whose shows might have very little in common on the surface but whose failings were pretty much identical, albeit brought to light in different ways.  Their main similarity is that each was ill-served by their directors and by the shows in which they presented themselves.  Coincidentally, each was also directed virtually, from afar, but I don’t think that was necessarily a part of the problem. 

Part of a director’s task is to help find material that shows off the strengths of a singer and allows their own, singular personality to live on the stage. A danger often faced by a director (particularly one who is also a performer) is the temptation to impart their personal strengths and style to a performer whether it suits them or not. This can reveal itself in patter, in phrasing, in arrangements and even in song selection.

In a show that felt like a debut but wasn’t, Bob Simonello recently presented On My Way at The Green Room 42, directed by Kristine Zbornik. Telling the history of his love life, it was packed with so many songs and so much patter that there was no room for Simonello to breathe. Zbornik is one of the acknowledged clowns of cabaret and could easily deal with the incessant delivery and pace, but it restrained the singer so much that there was little indication of the joy he claimed he got from performing. In his effort to get everything out, he kept himself locked in. He has an appealing, strong voice but his singing is so rigid that his phrasing and delivery had a harsh, almost metallic, edge that was not warm, not inviting, and ultimately tiring.  

Each song, from the lightest to the most serious, was delivered with a kind of private intensity that read as nerves more than anything. I think I saw one smile in the course of the entire show. Simonello must have been enjoying himself in some way, but he never let it show. There was little fun to be had in light-hearted material like “Trashy Men” (Jerry Jeff Walker, Chris Wall, with additional lyrics by Simonello), or “Gravity is a Bitch” (Miranda Lambert, Scott Wray), because he didn’t allow himself to have any. He didn’t attempt to deliver the laughs; he relied on the words themselves to do it but with an absence of style and energy, it was not enough. His director has humor and timing in her genes, but that can’t really be taught or directed. She should have helped to fashion material that allowed him to discover and share his own. Well-chosen ballads like “The People That You Never Get to Love” (Rupert Holmes) and “How Do You Keep the Music Playing” (Michel Legrand, Marilyn & Alan Bergman) were done in by his stilted, stiff delivery that lacked the ease of conversational phrasing as he concentrated more on holding notes than on holding thoughts.   

Far too many times, I wanted to yell out “relax” as jokes failed to land, as melodic lines crashed into each other, as patter began before a song had a moment to land and resonate with the audience. I can easily imagine Zbornik killing with the material, and I heard her voice on some of the lines. But this was Simonello’s show, and Simonello’s voice, and I didn’t get to know him at all, despite all the information and repetitious failed romances he recounted in his rapid-fire delivery.  

Many singers think that the more musicians on stage, the better the show, even when they are not ready to hold their own against such a musical “onslaught”; a director should guide the singer away from this impulse until they are ready.  In the brief moments when he sang with just piano, I got a glimpse of what a more relaxed, at ease, in touch Simonello might have to offer, but when he was forced to be part of the band and place his vocal delivery front and center to match his cohorts, his personality disappeared; he was singing arrangements, not telling stories. 

This is not a reflection on the playing of music director Jeff Harris and the other musicians, which was fine, if a bit oblivious to the singer’s weak points and needs. It may seem like a backward step to get back to basics and work with just a piano and more naturalistic patter until he is more settled and secure on stage, but I think that is just what was needed.  

I also attended Susanne Mack’s Sea Legs in its return engagement to Pangea.  As the title implies, the concept of the evening was the sea, water, beaches, sailors, et al. The repeated messaging was how healing, how soothing, how soul-lifting the sea can be. There was little specificity in her words, just broad, clichéd platitudes.  Mack’s director, Barb Jungr, is so good at spontaneous, off-the-cuff, and connected patter, that perhaps she assumed that this singer could do the same. Ironically, the first three numbers where some patter might have been enlightening, had no talk. Noel Coward’s “Sail Away,’ the Looking Glass hit “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” (Elliot Lurie), and especially, the traditional shanty, “Wellerman,” were left to flounder with no anchor—not even a definition for “wellerman” for the unenlightened. 

These songs (and the rest of the selections) were expertly accompanied by Jody Shelton, but Mack’s vocals were never in the pocket; they never landed fully, and her phrasing was too often halting and tentative.  On occasion, Shelton would join in on vocals, and his natural, relaxed sound only served to point up what was lacking in hers.  

As with Zbornik and humor, one problem with this show was song choices more suited to the director than the performer. I could picture the stark, personal folk selections done to a fare-thee-well by Jungr, whose mastery of folk and traditional cabaret has long been applauded. Richard Thompson, Fred Neil, Jesse Winchester, and others are songwriters that need interpretive skills and assured delivery., far beyond that possessed by Mack at this point. Mack may indeed love them, but she lacked the poise and command of the stage to make them work. Even the more pop/cabaret friendly material suffered. Irving Berlin’s “How Deep is the Ocean” and “I Cover the Waterfront” (Johnny Green, Eddie Heyman) are a heavy lift even for the best of singers.  

This was not Mack’s first cabaret show—she has performed several shows over the years—but this particular show was not ready to be reviewed, and I saw no evidence that Susanne Mack’s director addressed, or even noticed, any of these issues.

I have at times been criticized for giving a mixed or constructive review to a show with the argument, “But it got a standing ovation!”  My advice to both these singers (who did, in fact, receive that kind of response) is to keep it in perspective.  Perform as if the room is filled with strangers from which you must earn the support with which your current audiences, mostly friends and family, arrive at the club. Neither of these shows was ready for an audience of strangers. The singers, while displaying potential, failed to receive the necessary guidance from those around them. And that’s a shame.  



About the Author

Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”