Danielle Ferland’s “Sing for Your Ghosts”

June 6, 2023

Sometimes a performer strikes gold by mining a very specific moment in time, or a specific show, and that very specificity shapes and refines the story and limits detours to other times and shows. But more often than not, the structure is that of a song-filled survey of school, then amateur productions, then touring and summer stock, and climaxing, with luck, with Broadway and movies and TV and then, depending on the age of the singer, whatever post-fame activities are deemed worthy of commemoration on the cabaret stage. 

It has become a trope that performers of a certain age who have achieved some notoriety and fame as children or young adults seem duty-bound to present a cabaret resumé of their lives to date in answer to that timeless question posed by the ever-present, ever-prescient Stephen Sondheim: Sorry, I thought you were whoozis; what ever happened to her? 

Danielle Ferland (Photo: Julia Maloof Verderosa)

What few seem to realize is that, but for the names of the schools, the shows, the teachers, and the co-stars, these stories are cut from the same cloth and without some stunning revelation, or denouement, or some laser focus on a moment in time, they blur and bore as often as they thrill and inform. While Danielle Ferland, whose latest cabaret show that debuted at The Green Room 42, Sing for Your Ghosts, avoids some of the pitfalls, what is special about her story is too often undercut by the wash of cliché and the lack of preparation.

I am a big fan of the original Into the Woods, and I saw it many times in its Broadway run, most often with Ferland’s memorable turn as its Little Red Riding Hood. I even managed to get to her final appearance in the special reunion of the whole cast for the videotaping for PBS shortly before it closed. Before that, I remember her fondly as the bespectacled, neglected, spoiled young girl sabotaging various romantic entanglements and attempting to do the same to George’s masterpiece in the original Sunday in the Park with George. Her voice retains the powerful, piercing tones of her youth, masterfully arranged and assisted by her music director Brian Nash, but is relegated to the fragments of songs she chose to scatter throughout the lengthy patter that is the centerpiece of the show. 

I always shudder a bit when I enter a cabaret room and observe that there is a music stand, front and center next to the microphone, especially when for the duration it holds a binder of some magnitude. Much of the writing (by Ferland and Abby Sher) was well done—if it had been written for a magazine article or a treatise on a life in the theatre. But, as a conversation shared with the audience, its “prose-y” feel lacked a natural, conversational flow that would have been more inviting. This was exacerbated by her slavish reliance on and reference to the damned book on the damned stand.  This Ill-considered circumstance reached its nadir when she relayed the story of her mother’s funeral in the following manner:  “…I was seated in the front pew with my father on my left…” pause, all intensity and feeling leaving her face and body, she turned to the book on the stand, turned the page, silently read a passage, looked back up at the audience as all that intensity and feeling came flooding back and said, “…and on the right were my brother and sister.”  I suppose her ability to jump out of and then back into highly emotional moments with no loss in feeling, was impressive— but to what end? I began to think that this is what it must have been like to listen to the Nixon tapes with all those gaps.   

Her reminiscences of working with Sondheim were particularly strong and beautiful and insightful—providing information and impressions of the man that only she could impart. The song choices were, for the most part, fine and I kept wishing I could have heard more than two or three of them in their entirety, especially since her singing was strong and emotionally resonant, and her steely belt is in fine shape. Yet, even on the vocals she had to refer to the script much too often for lyrics.  Intriguing directorial touches were evident throughout courtesy of Darren Katz, but he missed the boat on the overall structure and presentation. There were some lovely ideas and set-ups like her opening with “Hello Little Girl” (Sondheim, from Into the Woods) capturing the Wolf’s sinister sexuality and ravenous interest after years of having been the object of them. Embarrassingly, this took the show down an unfortunate path. Her lengthy (no pun intended) description of the Wolf’s endowment in the early days of the production opened the door to constant and endless phallocentric detours in words and mimes and, at one point, a drawing of penises.

Another patter pitfall was on display in the frequent assumption that the audience was made up primarily of friends and family, and folks familiar with her life off the stage. References to her growing up in a “Catholic cult” in Connecticut with bible camps, et al, were bewildering to those of us not privy to her biography.  But when she connected with a story or a song, as in “Through the Eyes of Love” (Marvin Hamlisch, Carol Bayer Sager, from the film Ice Castles) where she eschewed the obvious romantic implications and made it about the love of performing, it was terrific. A medley of Sting’s “Fields of Gold” with Sondheim’s “Children and Art” (from Sunday in the Park with George), while not totally clear, was such a richly sustained musical performance that it overcame its weaknesses and pointed the way to a promising cabaret future in which there are fewer stories to tell and more opportunity for great songs to showcase just how good a singer and actress Danielle Ferland is.  And, oh yes, where music stands are outlawed.


Presented at The Green Room 42, 570 10th Avenue, on May 20 & 21, 2023.


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?”