The Young Minds Benefit for Teen Suicide Prevention took place at famed New York cabaret Don’t Tell Mama on September 6th, playing to a house that was full enough but that, frankly, should have been standing room only. The cause was a great one and the lineup was equal in its esteem, featuring some of the most gifted artists that can be found in a nightclub today. It was sad to see those few empty seats around the room, and it made this writer want to go into the outer bar at Don’t Tell Mama to coerce unsuspecting bar patrons into the room to support the charity and the performers who were donating their time to that charity. Not wishing to cause a disturbance, though, I left them to their drinks and conversation and sat back to enjoy, for myself, an evening of great promise.
The evening did not fail to deliver.
Produced by singer/actress Candice Oden, The Young Minds Benefit featured almost no dialogue, except for her welcoming speech which opened with the double whammy of confessions: Oden has bipolar disorder and is a survivor of a teenage suicide attempt. It’s best to get it out of the way early. It was not a far stretch of the imagination that she was not the only person in the room who would be able to make such a confession (so that Ms. Oden will not feel alone in the personal revelation department, I will break the rule of journalism and join her in the personal confession that I have suffered from depression all my life and am also the survivor of youthful suicide attempts). Sharing her story with refreshing brevity that one might find lacking in a cabaret show, Oden moved forward with jokes and laughter and some unhappy statistics about teen suicide before declaring her devotion to raising funds for Young Minds, an organization researching cures for mental illness. The opening monologue taking no more than four minutes, Oden turned the stage over to a cavalcade of singers who spent an hour bringing the audience the full range of emotions that one should expect (or hope for) when they settle into their seats at a nightclub.
A show without story, the Young Minds benefit had to rely on the stories each of the singers brought with them, beginning with a sweet “And So It Goes” by Zach Wobensmith, sitting quietly on the stage and filling the air with the right balance of solemnity and pathos. It was an effective and elegant way to start a night that, given the topic of mental illness and suicide, could have been a rather depressing one. It would, though, be hard for anyone to be depressed while watching Candice Oden sing “Fight Song” with all the fire and passion expected for this number, but with surprising quiet when the telling of the story required it. When creating a group show, your opening and second numbers are crucial because they set the tone of the show and let the audience know what they should be doing, and director Tanya Moberly’s mastery was showing when she sent Wobensmith and Oden out in those respective positions – and whether it was producer Oden or director Moberly, whoever asked musical director Steven Ray Watkins to be a part of the proceeding should be given a gold star for brilliance, because Mr. Watkins brought his usual gift of anchoring a show with his steadfast, reliable and considerable talent – each performer was able to concentrate on the story they were telling, knowing that he had their back. (Anyone who has sung with a pianist who does not have their back is nodding their head right now.)
One might wonder if a benefit with a focus on mental illness and teen suicide would the be exact, correct place to bring your rendition of “Ode to Billy Joe”, and when the extremely recognizable first bars of the song started, there was a moment when this writer did not breathe, but once Marnie Klar got going, it was obvious that her bold choice for the evening was the right choice for the evening. As Bernice said, right after she bobbed her hair, you’ve either got to feed people, amuse them or shock them. Ms. Klar and bold choices go together.
Ms. Moberly took off her director hat for a few minutes in favor of her singer hat and broke hearts with a woeful “Broken” by Betty, reminding audiences that her first love was singing and when she is working behind the scenes, she is still a musical storyteller, one with a voice like a siren and impeccable follow through with her phrasing. Not one moment of the story fell from her hands – they all landed in our hearts, right where they belong.
It was time for some artists to double up, as Sean Harkness’s deft, dextrous fingers flew over frets during his original guitar instrumental that drew cheers from the audience, after which Marcus Simeone joined Harkness for a lush and wondrous performance of “Be Aware” made even more wondrous from Simeone’s confession that this was their first time doing the number together. In a word: amazing.
The next artists to double up were Lauren Elder and Bobby Cronin, as Cronin took to the piano to play his own “Fly Right Outta Here” as the irrepressible Elder wrapped her vocal cords around us in a virtual hug that drew us to her in a hug that we wanted to last forever. Elder stepping off the stage, Cronin provided piano and vocals for his self-penned “Sidewalks”, a song from his musical “Mary and Max”, and given his songwriting prowess this show can’t land in New York soon enough for this writer. It should also be said that Cronin seems a really cool dude with some major singing chops.
Christine DeFrece brought great presence and energy to William Finn’s “Infinite Joy”, indeed she brought the joy herself, and Heather Villaescusa made certain that the evening did not become too serious, sad, or maudlin with an epic performance of Joe Iconis’ “Velociraptor”. If Ms Villaescusa would make an appearance at every group show, benefit, variety hour and open mic night with this number, the people of New York City would be walking around with a permanent smile on their faces.
Lennie Watts brought all the power with “A Nice Boy Like Me”, showing off the vocals and the laughs for which he is so famous, bringing home even bigger laughs by owning the forgotten lyrics with an appropriately and hilariously ad-libbed “Oh f*ck it all to hell!” — it’s the simple things in life that bring happiness. Watts was backed up on the Manilow tune by Those Girls, who stayed on stage for a memorable “I Will” and an absolutely mind-blowing “Heave on the Bowline”. This was a one-two-three punch of powerhouse performances, the kind that tells the audience it’s time to go home, so Charles Baran brought ardor and charisma to “93 Million Miles” before bringing up the closer of this truly lovely night of entertainment for the truly important charity Young Minds.
Joshua Bennett is kind of the Good Will Ambassador of Don’t Tell Mama, and everyone knows it. His kindness and his heart, his openness, and his beauty (inner and outer) capture the affection of regulars, of newcomers, of audiences and employees, making him the perfect person to close out the night. With a voice like a dove sailing into the ether, Joshua serenaded the extremely happy audience with an uplifting “Win” by Brian McKnight, sending all into the first night (not officially, but temperately) of fall, happy that an act of charity could prove so satisfying.
To learn more about The Young Minds Foundation visit their Website
Zach Wobensmith and Steven Ray Watkins
Sean Harkness and Marcus Simeone
Lauren Elder and Bobby Cronin
Lennie Watts and THOSE GIRLS
Joshua Bennett and Steven Ray Watkins
Photos by Stephen Mosher