Katie McGrath and Chuck Flowers: “Playing Favorites”
The worlds of cabaret and R&B cover songs met in Playing Favorites, the new show by Bistro Award winner Katie McGrath and St. Louis based singer Chuck Flowers. I am sorry to say that it was more a collision than a blend of styles. A few years ago, McGrath presented one of the most accomplished and compelling NYC cabaret debuts I have ever witnessed. Her continued connection to the songs she chooses to sing and the stories she chooses to tell has been stunning. Flowers has a smooth, rich voice, ideally suited for Motown from which he chose most of his material. The two met and have been performing together in St. Louis, and McGrath decided it was time to introduce New York to her new friend co-star.
Interrupting the opening number (rarely a good idea) to introduce the concept of the show, McGrath informed the room that the night would be about favorites—favorite songs, favorite people, favorite everything. It threw what little connection they had to Curtis Mayfield’s “It’s All Right” out the window and prevented any musical excitement from building.
Their loose concept came and went as the evening progressed but never really paid off. Flowers then soloed on the Stevie Wonder hit, “My Cherie Amour,” and as nicely phrased and delivered as it was, it never rose above a satisfying cover. Particularly in a cabaret setting, the pop song ornaments (in this case, the “la la la’s”) need some reason to be there beyond imitation of the original but there was none to be found. McGrath then sang the standard “All of Me” (Gerald Marks, Seymour Simons), first as an intelligent, personal take on the Billie Holiday classic, and then as a very funny “Half of Me,” skewering the dated romantic tropes of the original with pointed, witty, self-penned lyrics.
And so it continued throughout the show—a ragged shuffling of decent, if uninspired, covers and cabaret moments done with varying degrees of success. While the R&B songs might well be favorites of McGrath to listen to, they were out of her wheelhouse as far as performance—at least in their original form, which seemed to be the only way that her musical partner could perform them. Her discomfort at the rigidity of the arrangements was evident throughout and reached its nadir in the closer, an anemic “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (Nickolas Ashford, Valerie Simpson) which was followed by a tired encore of “You’ve Got a Friend.”
There were a few highpoints that helped to counteract the missteps. Revealing that she became a Pilates instructor in her post-COVID life, McGrath said she was inspired by a student to imagine “Landslide” (Stevie Nicks) as the confession of a woman struggling with body issues; it was moving and powerful.
What should have been a delightful and funny follow-up about the continued sexism in the fashion industry, “Victoria’s Secret” (Jax) was instead pummeled in a loud and unfunny rock number. Later, the singer presented a lovely poem she had written about coming out of the pandemic (set to music by the late Rick Jensen) named “George and Greta”; it was inspired by the famous Life magazine cover of the kiss at the end of World War II. It was a touching number, beautifully sung. Flowers was at his most personal and personable on his most “modern” choice, “Speak Now” (Lesley Odom Jr., Chris Stapleton) that offered the promise of more intriguing work in cabaret if he chooses to pursue that route. He could have no better guide and mentor than McGrath.
The few full duets in the show had no narrative reason for being sung together so it got uncomfortably close to glorified karaoke. While I questioned some of the arrangement choices, the playing throughout was delightfully on point. Music director Yasuhiko Fukuoka offered his customary winning and always welcome piano, and Mike Krysl provided some tasty guitar fills but had an irritating habit of stealing focus and had trouble with feedback sounds from his amp. Guest singer Chet Whye, Jr. did what might have been a pointed bit of social commentary with “Say Something” (Justin Timberlake, Larrance Dopson, Floyd Nathaniel Hills, Timbaland, Chris Stapleton), but it was lost in a scattered performance with more empty physical movement than lyric declaration. Lina Koutrakos was credited as director but there was little evidence of her work on the stage.
The talents of Katie McGrath and Chuck Flowers remain to be seen, enjoyed, and applauded another day, but Playing Favorites did neither of them any favors.
Presented at Don’t Tell Mama, 346 W. 46th St., NYC, October 14, 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?”