The Follow Spot
Iridium – Tuesdays, from 11:00 PM
There’s a new open mic in town: “The Follow Spot,” every Tuesday evening starting at 11:00PM at Iridium. Each of the city’s open mics has qualities and attributes that set it apart from the others, and each is likely to appeal to a particular subset of the musical community (performers and audience members alike) though these subsets are bound to overlap. The distinct character of The Follow Spot is its blend of taste and intelligence, and it stems directly from its hosts, Elena Bennett and Fred Barton. Their sensibilities set the tone for the evening, and what’s more, from time to time throughout the proceedings the pair gets to perform. Each of those performances is a lesson in how it should be done.
As you probably know, Bennett is a singer, and Barton is a pianist, orchestrator, musical director, conductor, vocalist, actor, teacher, and composer/lyricist (Miss Gulch Returns, among others). OK, you might not have been aware of all of the hats Barton wears.
I first saw Bennett in the mid-’90s, when she was working in the lounge at Eighty Eight’s. I was leaving the club after having been to a show in the upstairs show room, just as she launched into a song; I had to stop and listen. Though it was a slow, tender ballad, the room immediately quieted down, so compelling was—and is—her artistry. I didn’t leave the club for some time that evening. She as at once the least showy and the most perceptive of singers, getting straight to the heart of a song with a deep understanding of its meaning and free from extraneous embellishment.
It was in the early ’80s that I first saw Barton, when he was musical director of the original production of Forbidden Broadway, and I’ve seen his work many times since, both as solo performer and as musical director/accompanist. His piano accompaniment is uncommonly rich—not only when he works with Bennett on arrangements they’ve performed before, which are terrific, but even when accompanying someone new on a song he’s playing for the first time, which of course happens fairly often in an open mic. For example, Terese Genecco sat in one evening and handed Barton the chart for the title song of her marvelous Frances Faye show, “Drunk With Love.” Barton went beyond accompanying skillfully: he supplied coloration that was both pleasing in its own right and supportive of the vocal. On occasion, Barton will perform a number on his own; though he’s not primarily a singer, he knows how to interpret a lyric and how to put a song across.
The larger portion of the evening is given over to open mic. Barton establishes the parameters at the outset: “We do standards and show tunes—no pop, no rock,” and he went on to quip that this also means no grunge and no house. And lest there be any false expectations, he adds, “I’m not a jazz pianist.” But that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t swing or that he can’t get down. He does and he can. And when one young singer came up and handed him John Legend’s “Ordinary People”—clearly neither a show tune nor a standard—he accompanied commendably, afterwards making light of his own work by saying that he merely played what was written on the sheet music. Throughout the evening, the third Follow Spot regular, Rex Benincasa on percussion, chimes in as he sees fit. Because he’s given no charts, he has to wing it using only his musical expertise and judgment, which appear to be unfailingly sound.
The open mic participants have run the gamut, from newcomers and Broadway hopefuls to singers with considerable experience; the latter category has included KT Sullivan, Sarah Rice, and the aforementioned Terese Genecco. With the newcomers, Barton will sometimes offer constructive advice: he counseled one young singer about the choice of material in his song portfolio, discouraged another from calling out Barton’s name for applause after a mid-song instrumental solo, advised a third singer to bring sheet music for entire songs instead of shortened audition arrangements, and cautioned another to approach a ballad more gently. In addition, he suggested which recorded version of a song to listen to to get a better understanding of what the song is about, and he even offered to coach a singer on interpretation. His advice has been consistently on target. I’m not aware of another open mic that provides this opportunity to learn; it doesn’t take much time at all, and I believe it benefits not only the singer on stage, but also the spectators. I think this is great.
Of course, it’s inevitable that performances at open mics will vary; however, many of the people I’ve seen at The Follow Spot have ranged from good to excellent. Plus there are the performances by Bennett and Barton to ground the evening and guarantee a high entertainment quotient. Their material includes well-known songs (e.g., Cole Porter standards and numbers from Annie Get Your Gun and Hello, Dolly!) and relative obscurities (e.g., songs sung by Alice Faye in films of the 1930s, selections from Two on the Aisle, Plan and Fancy, and Life Begins at 8:40, and “Love, Look in My Window,” the lovely song Jerry Herman wrote for Ethel Merman to sing in Hello, Dolly!). What they have in common, aside from being “show tunes and standards,” is that they’re all good. And Bennett and Barton will often give a bit of background information about the songs, which shows respect for the writers, the material, and the audience.
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.