“Kidding on the Square”
Metropolitan Room – August 26, 28, 30, 31
Emily Bergl has had an enviable career as an actress on television, in films, and in the theatre. (To cite a few of her many credits: Desperate Housewives, Star Trek Enterprise, Taken, Men in Trees, Grey’s Anatomy on TV; The Rage: Carrie 2, Chasing Sleep, Fur in films; A Touch of the Poet, The Rivals, The Lion in Winter on Broadway.) Her acting skill was evident in her debut cabaret show, “Kidding on the Square,” which played the Metropolitan Room recently, directed by Sarna Lapine and with gratifyingly musical musical direction and piano accompaniment (and very agreeable vocal back-up) from G. Scott Lacy. I was surprised to learn that this venture marked her musical debut as well—surprised and impressed, for Bergl displayed a trained voice, equally attractive and persuasive across a range of styles and moods. While the show succeeded in demonstrating her considerable talent, it was also plagued with a multitude of infelicitous choices that served her ill.
First the good news. Bergl performed “Goodbye, Emil” (Keith Herman, Barry Harman, from Romance/Romance), in which the singer very happily parts from a lover, with artful musical theatre skill and savvy, and she gave Roy Orbison’s “Cryin’” a sincere, beautifully focused reading. Her striking interpretation of a smart paring of “The Fear” (Lily Allen, Greg Kurstin) and “Material Girl” (Peter Brown, Robert Rans) was solidly dramatic. (Regrettably, at the performance I attended the audience laughed. I believe this stemmed from two factors: (a) with the missteps earlier in the evening, as discussed below, Bergl had set up an expectation of humor, and (b) the mindless insensitivity of a number of audience members.) Her perky performance and a toe-tapping arrangement transformed the disco hit “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’” (Scott Hoffman, Jason Sellards, Elton John) into a very appealing number. Equally chipper was her rendition of Harry Woods’s “We Just Couldn’t Say Goodbye.” Throughout the evening she performed with great assurance, and when she wasn’t engaged in some misguided bit of hokum, she displayed a charming personality.
Now the problems. She got off to a regrettable start with a mocking interpretation of Noël Coward’s “Mad About the Boy,” in her wrongheaded attempt at comic effect, depriving the song of any genuine sentiment. For example, she spat out the line “I know it’s stupid” and the word “girl” in the line “Lord knows I’m not a fool girl,” and in one of the repeats of the line “I’m mad about the boy” she held the word “mad” for a long, long time, finally giving herself a knock in the head to stop the madness. The result was not remotely funny enough to justify doing that to this classic. She subjected the next number, Dietz & Schwartz’s “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan,” to similarly heavy-handed humor.
Right after the line “Loudly the saxophone blows” in Rodgers & Hart’s “Ten Cents a Dance,” Lacy attempted a simulation of the sound of a sax on the piano, and Bergl griped, “Can’t even afford a real saxophone!” By taking us out of the song, she undermined whatever she might have otherwise accomplished with the number; what’s more, the bit was lame. She needs to re-think her approach to Billy Barnes’s “Something Cool”: her characterization was rather all over the place, and her performance had only occasional patches of pathos. She set up Dave Frishberg’s “Peel Me a Grape” delightfully, recreating Blossom Dearie’s 1966 introduction to the song; however, her interpretation then got buried in the stylization.
There were a couple of foreign language missteps. Pink Martini’s “Sympathique” (China Forbes, Thomas Lauderdale) is quite a good song, but Bergl’s pronunciation of the French lyric was at best only fair; for example, the repeated lyric je fume came out as ja fume. I think it’s unwise to attempt a song in a foreign language unless one’s pronunciation of that language is impeccable (except for broadly comic numbers). In setting up “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön” (Sholom Secunda, Jacob Jacobs, Sammy Cahn, Saul Chaplin), she made a big comical to-do about how to pronounce German properly, particularly the second word in danke schön, and in the middle of the number she got individual audience members to attempt to say the word; however, the song’s origin is Yiddish, not German, so the humor was misplaced.
As I stated at the beginning, this was Bergl’s first cabaret show. There is a big difference between playing a role in theatre and singing in cabaret. I believe that in several significant ways, cabaret is more difficult. In a book musical, when performers launch into a song, they’ve got a lot of props to support them: the audience knows the context and in many cases the subtext, the character has been established by the story and dialogue that led up to the song, and if the song is well positioned, the audience should actively want to hear it. In cabaret, the onus is on the performer to establish all of the above; the arrangement and a line of lead-in patter can help, but there is still a lot on the singer’s shoulders. In theatre, because the singer is surrounded by many other characters and artistic elements, he can get away with singing a song reasonably well (get away with, not be wonderful), whereas in cabaret, being reasonably good isn’t good enough.
What’s more, the singer must make a number of artistic choices that in a theatrical musical will have been made by other people and dictated by the show’s other elements. In cabaret, it is the performer’s vision that should inform the evening; the director’s job is to help the artist realize that vision. I cannot say to what extent the director of Bergl’s cabaret show was responsible for, or failed to correct, the errors. Since I did not observe the working sessions, I don’t know what dynamics actually prevailed; I don’t know who, in fact, made which choices.
I do hope that Bergl continues with her cabaret work. I’m certain she is capable of turning in a smashing cabaret show. It’s just that this one wasn’t it.
About the Author
Roy Sander has been covering cabaret and theatre for over thirty years. He’s written cabaret and theatre reviews, features, and commentary for seven print publications, most notably Back Stage, and for CitySearch on the Internet. He covered cabaret monthly on “New York Theatre Review” on PBS TV, and cabaret and theatre weekly on WLIM-FM radio. He was twice a guest instructor at the London School of Musical Theatre. A critic for BistroAwards.com, he is also the site’s Reviews Editor; in addition, he is Chairman of the Advisory Board of MAC.