By Marilyn Lester***Two very different recent cabaret shows, by two distinctly different gentlemen, none the less had a lot in common. Mark Nadler‘s I’m a Stranger Here Myself at The Laurie Beechman Theatre and Rian Keating‘s Woman Songs at Don’t Tell Mama both addressed themes of childhood, family, remembrance and more. But most of all, each revealed personal truths, deeply felt and expressed by master storytellers, which ultimately spoke to common experience.
I’m a Stranger Here Myself is one of Nadler’s most personal show; it debuted some years ago and enjoyed a run at the York Theater that included a series of projected images to illustrate the narrative. This iteration was tailored to the intimate space of the Beechman, with musical enhancement in the superb artistry of violinist Christine Kwak and accordionist William Schimmal (the musical arrangements were by Nadler). Sung in English, French and German, the numbers were largely those of the Weimar Republic, which as Nadler pointed out, was the first time ever that Germany had experienced democracy, for an all-too-brief period between the World Wars. And oh, what a time it was.
But the story begins Iowa, where Nadler was born and raised, beginning with a reflection on that time in song: “J’attends un Javier/I May Never Go Home Anymore/Come a Wandering with Me” (Kurt Weill, Jaques Deval/Ralph A. Roberts, Jack Brooks/Arthur Schwartz, Howard Dietz) and “Oh, How We Wish That We Were Kids Again” (Friedrich Hollander, Jeremy Lawrence-English lyrics).
In that roaring 1920s era in Germany there was a new-found freedom of expression—most anything was possible and permitted. Nostalgia for how it used be was expressed in Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “The Bilbao Song” (Michael Feingold-English lyrics). Nadler can sometimes be overly enthusiastic in his presentation, but in this instance that characteristic worked. Masterfully recounting the old days in Bilbao, he transformed the tune into a powerful story song. Yours truly has never heard it sung better.
In a smart, well-researched and curated narrative, the songs paired perfectly with the text, from the title song by Weill (German lyric-Maurice Magre, English lyric-Ogden Nash) to “Oh, Just Suppose” (Hollander, Lawrence-English) to “By Myself” (Scwhartz, Dietz). Along the way we lived the world of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret (based on Christopher Isherwood’s book, The Berlin Stories), pretending we might have been in the Kit Kat Club, in a Berlin where art and politics and purpose were celebrated. But then came the Nazi Party and the rest is literally history.
Wrapping up, singing a cappella, Nadler offered a beautifully pensive rendition of Weill’s 1941 “My Ship.” And as an encore, we were back in Iowa with a stunning conclusion. Should Nadler present I’m a Stranger Here Myself again, it’s a must-see.
Rian Keating has the ability to make even the most mundane set of circumstances into wondrous tales and stories, and to boot it seems the Keating well never runs dry. Woman Songs, with Darryl Curry at the piano, was about the women in Keating’s life who affected him, many of whom were teachers. He set the stage with “Woman Undone” by Irish-influenced songwriter Thom Moore, a tune that offered insight into the nature of womanhood. Keating’s repertoire was highly curated—perfect choices for his narrative. The tunes also suited his vocal capacities. Keating, who has a pleasant, mellow baritone, excels at interpretation. Hearing problems cause pitch issues, but those fall to the wayside in relation to the greater whole of what he offers as an artist.
In “Jean” (Rod McKuen) the child’s eye saw the inspirational side of teaching, but in “Thieving Boy” (John Dankworth, Cleo Laine), not so much, representing how unfair life can be. There were props to go along with the text, such as report cards with teacher comments. Referring to his mother, he said, “she kept everything.” Young Rian grew up, as children do: “Baby in a Box” (Amanda McBroom) coupled with “Turn Around”(Harry Belafonte, Malvina Reynolds). Stories about his maternal grandmother came into a larger focus with the now young man: “Millworker” (James Taylor) and a powerful recitation of Gwendolyn Brooks poem, “The Mother.”
As with I’m a Stranger Here Myself, there was an important family reveal. Bringing out a sweater his grandmother knitted for him, Keating connected the dots between this amazing woman and his teaching career. The proceeds of every Keating cabaret go to the Golden Door Scholarship Fund, which Keating founded as a young teacher. His closing number was the memory song “My Sister and I” (Hy Zaret, Jean Whitney, Alex Kramer) with its ironic refrain “But we don’t talk about that.” Because The Golden Door exists as a consequence of the Keating legacy, his encore was a moving rendition of “The New Colossus,” the poem by Emma Lazarus that resides inside the Statue of Liberty.
In the end, we’re fortunate that Rian Keating does talk about that. Each of his shows from this modern day schanachie has never failed to be clever, insightful and supremely entertaining.
Photos of Rian Keating by Conor Weiss