New York City cabaret mainstay Colleen McHugh has returned to Signature Theatre yet again in its annual Sizzlin’ Summer Cabaret series. Rather than resting on her laurels as many do – particularly when they have a regular, captive audience as can be the case with such yearly cabaret festivals – she came in with a brand new show. She was already off to a good start.
But, wait! It was a show featuring less known material that shares a common theme? She was off to a really good start.
The accomplished performer, supported by musical director/arranger/pianist Ted Firth and bassist Adam Neely, selected songs about emotional and physical distance. There were songs from decades past and modern times, upbeat patter songs about tropical lands and songs expressing great longing and despair. The eclectic yet cohesive set list pretty much ensured that no stone was left unturned. That’s a good thing.
Brilliantly mixing more than solid vocals, powerful yet unforced emotion, and even a bit of improvisation for good measure, she plowed through a series of highlights with humor and professionalism. To be sure, almost the entire show was a highlight, but a few selections stood out.
McHugh professed a love for sad songs with copious amounts of lyrical depth and handled the many she chose extraordinarily well, but even when she stepped out of her comfort zone with Irving Berlin’s “(I’ll See You In) C-U-B-A,” she excelled. Her natural charm showed through as she entertained the appreciative crowd with this little ditty. The same can be said for “Shanghai,” which was previously recorded by the likes of Peggy Lee and Doris Day. These tunes could be a bit musty and corny given their age, but her renditions came off as fresh and new.
One of her better known selections, Burt Bacharach’s “Trains and Boats and Planes,” allowed her to demonstrate the versatility of her voice. She could handle the Broadway-like belting in this song, just as well as she could handle the jazzier and more legit songs of the evening. The vocal highlight by far, however, was her opening number “Down Among the Sheltering Palms.” Exhibiting great vocal control and offering some unique phrasing, it was a performance to remember.
Likewise, I must say it’s quite refreshing to be in the presence of a cabaret performer who clearly knows her craft very well and is obviously overjoyed at sharing her talents with the audience. On occasion even the most seasoned cabaret stars can deliver in-between-song banter that is either awkward, seemingly too over-rehearsed, or at worst, both. There was no awkwardness here or a pressing and obvious need to make the audience love her. From describing her search for songs to include in the evening and sharing a bit about her quirky personality, she displayed a penchant for natural conversation and maintained an easy-going relationship with her captive audience.
Even a bit of improv – in which she put together a song on the spot capturing an audience member’s travel woes – could never be perceived (as it often is with other performers) as her trying too hard to get the audience to become further immersed into her performance. McHugh has performed with Chicago’s renowned Second City so she’s clearly no slouch in the improvisational comedy department – and her creation at Signature that night certainly was a reflection of that – but I appreciated her decision to include the spontaneous element to the show for other reasons as well. There was no desperation involved and she seemed to be having just as much fun putting together the number as the audience was listening to it.
McHugh’s talent is indeed overwhelming and varied and I look forward to whenever she returns to Signature again.
Colleen McHugh’s cabaret at Signature Theatre, a one night only performance on August 17, 2013, marked the close of the Sizzlin’ Summer Cabaret series. Signature’s Autumn Cabaret series begins September 4th.