Metropolitan Room – March 3
John Gabriel is at least as well known as an actor (the daytime drama Ryan’s Hope) and TV producer (Charles Grodin’s talk shows) as he is as a singer. Grodin, himself, showed up at the Metropolitan Room to introduce Gabriel at this one-nighter, sharing with the audience a long, not-especially-amusing video clip from one of their shows. In it, Gabriel appears on camera with the host, expressing the hope that he might fill in some night as musical guest—then he storms off the set in mock outrage after Grodin pretends to sniff at this suggestion.
When the older, flesh-and-blood Gabriel finally arrived at the microphone, accompanied by pianist/conductor Shelly Markham and bassist Jered Egan, he demonstrated a conversational singing style. Gabriel tends to take a laid-back approach to a song. His pitch during this performance was not always the truest, and he seemed to swallow and even choke on some of the sustained notes at the ends of certain phrases. He noted that he was just getting over the flu, so this may have been part or all of the problem. Despite such difficulties there were qualities of warmth, gentleness, and amiability in Gabriel’s singing. He reminded me sometimes of Fred Astaire. Critic Steve Schwartz once described Astaire’s singing as “deceptively casual, never oversold, and at home with the American vernacular.” Those virtues could also be applied to Gabriel at his best here.
However, there was a kind of sameness throughout much of this program. The lazybones tack Gabriel took on song after song—from breezy swing numbers, such as the Gershwins’ “They All Laughed,” to ballads, such as “Skylark” (Johnny Mercer, Hoagy Carmichael)—created monotony. Occasionally Gabriel lived up to his surname, giving us a more clarion sound—for instance, at the end of “I Believe” (Ervin Drake, Irvin Graham, Jimmy Shirl, Al Stillman), but these were rare exceptions. (Drake was present at the performance, so perhaps Gabriel mustered special oomph on the songwriter’s behalf.)
The set list consisted almost entirely of Great American Songbook mainstays. Gabriel’s song introductions throughout the first part of the show featured perfunctory-seeming anecdotes about how the various songwriters went about conceiving and crafting their numbers. Then, toward the end of the act, he switched gears, including more patter about his own life and career. The shift in thematic focus gave the evening a scattered, meandering quality.
To my mind, the autobiographical strategy worked better for Gabriel. One successful late-program selection was Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “This Nearly Was Mine,” retooled to explain how Gabriel lost out on the role of The Professor in the 1960s sitcom Gilligan’s Island after having appeared in the show’s pilot episode. This parody was rather clever and endearing. And Gabriel earned extra points for subtly linking the sitcom’s tropical-island refuge with South Pacific‘s Bali Hai.
Perhaps the best turn of the evening was “El Dorado,” the theme song Gabriel wrote with Nelson Riddle for the 1966 film of the same name (Gabriel also acted in the film, with John Wayne and Robert Mitchum). “El Dorado” is an anthemic number, in an “Impossible Dream” mode, and Gabriel sang it quite rousingly. I think it would make a good closing song for this show, especially if Gabriel were to revamp the program to have a more consistently memoir-ish narration. The song has an “a man’s got to keep searching” sentiment that could serve perfectly as an inspirational finale to a cabaret-show.
I hope that if and when Gabriel returns to the cabaret stage, he’ll seek out material from off the beaten musical path. Are there, like “El Dorado,” other relatively obscure songs that have meant something special to him over the years, songs that he’d like to share with us? There’s nothing at all the matter with “Skylark,” but there are plenty of other good birds in the aviary.
About the Author
Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for BistroAwards.com in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is currently literary manager for Broad Horizons Theatre Company.