Here and Now
Don’t Tell Mama, NYC, May 22, 2018
Reviewed by Randolph B. Eigenbrode for Cabaret Scenes
Ted Mack. Danny Holgate. Jilly’s Saloon. Buddy Hackett. The Living Room. Sinatra.
For those of you too young to recognize these names and places, save for the Chairman of the Board, Tennie Leonard’s retrospective cabaret is a good place to start learning. Her show is part classroom, part showroom. And all of it is told through a handful of great Songbook gems peppered with unexpected choices.
Leonard entered in a brash red ensemble: long, narrow satin pants paired with a red bell-bottom sleeved top. The sleeves are hypnotizing, highlighting every wrist flick and wave of Leonard’s expressive arm movements. Red is a strong color and Leonard quickly revealed her own fortitude. Even for a woman of a certain age, she has no trouble remembering lyrics, blocking or—most excitingly—how to work a room.
She opened with “Golden Rainbow” (Walter Marks) and immediately we were transported to a supper club of the 1960s. Her voice recalls those great singers—Kaye Ballard, Tammy Grimes, Annie Ross—full of both class and brass. The pieces continued and she finessed each with equal parts audience interaction and personal journey. (Young cabaret singers, take note.)
And a quiet romance unfolded with Leonard and her MD, the always-great Ian Herman. His arrangements are elegant and appropriate. Making it look easy, he followed her every phrase—even when Leonard would decide to invigorate the ends of lines and through transitions. He is—to put it bluntly—a pro.
Leonard conversely colored each selection with bright hues. “You’re Nearer” (Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart), a wistful list song, was almost champagne pink in its intoxicating specificity. “I Never Do Anything Twice (Stephen Sondheim), full of tongue-in-cheek innuendo, vigorously simmered in jungle red. The clichéd “50 Percent” (Billy Goldenberg/Alan & Marilyn Bergman) should have boiled, but instead conjured a dim gray. Yet “Patterns” (Richard Maltby, Jr./David Shire), with Leonard’s misty eyes gleaming, felt like a satisfying midnight blue.
The latter would be one of three highly personalized moments in the show that each reverberated with fearless candor. Her takes on “I’ve Been Here Before” (Maltby & Shire), revealing a possible romance with a younger suitor, and “Not Exactly Paris” (Michael Leonard/Russell George), revealing a brief but haunting romance, are tailor-made choices for her. It’s sobering (and eerie) to witness the honesty of a simple lyric: “Of all the men in my life, I remember one.”
Clocking in at only 70 minutes and paced with breezy gusto (bravo to director Scott Barnes), Leonard deftly painted a rainbow of experiences. And her audience responded with knowing smiles, hearty guffaws, and nostalgic sniffles. This is the way cabaret should be.
And while there is certainly something to be said for neo-cabaret and breaking the rules, young cabaret singers should use Leonard’s show as a lesson in craft and technique. Her history is lush and her showbiz pedigree is undeniable.