Signature Theatre’s popular Sizzlin’ Summer Cabaret series may have just wrapped up, but the ambitious theatre company is certainly not done with providing DC area music lovers another large dose of cabaret performances. This week, Signature Theatre’s first Autumn Cabaret Festival got underway and over the next three weeks it will include performances from musical theatre performers, singer-songwriters, rock musicians, and more.
Kicking the festival off was New York-based belter Chelsea Packard, who made her Signature debut several months ago with the Lost Songs of Broadway: 1970s cabaret. You may remember that I pleaded in my review of that event for Signature leadership to cast her in a show because of her standout contribution to that cabaret.
OK, so a cabaret featuring Ms. Packard isn’t exactly fulfilling my wish, but let’s just say it’s a treat to see this young, exceptional performer take the Ark stage under a solo spotlight – and so soon at that. The rapturous applause after every number she performed indicated that I wasn’t the only one taken by her talent and girl-next-door vibe.
Her cabaret performance – appropriately titled “My Yellow Brick Road” because she made her stage debut in an elementary school production of The Wizard of Oz and eventually made her Broadway debut in the L. Frank Baum inspired blockbuster hit Wicked – featured an eclectic mix of songs from contemporary and golden age American musicals.
Although she included a song or two from each of these Oz-related productions (including the iconic “Defying Gravity”), the cabaret was most definitely not a salute to all things Ozian. Instead, each song was seemingly carefully selected to not only recall a stop along her the way to Broadway (and beyond), but demonstrate her musicianship and performance skills.
With music direction from the enormously talented pianist Howard Breitbart, this warm and engaging performer welcomed the Signature cabaret fans into her world for a moment or two. Although some of the in-between song banter was slightly awkward – a situation that can be chalked up to nerves or inexperience – she was still exceedingly charming throughout the 80 minute set. Her song performances were anything but awkward. Polished and professional, she definitely proved she has what it takes to stand alone as a vocalist on stage.
A few of the vocal highlights deserve mentioning.
Andrew Lippa’s “Raise the Roof” (from The Wild Party) seemed particularly tailor-made for Chelsea’s rangy voice. As the high-energy and fun opening number, she set the bar high with her pitch-perfect and mercifully non-screechy rendition. Let’s just say many, many have attempted this song in a cabaret setting since Julia Murney performed it in the off-Broadway production and most don’t fare as well.
Ms. Packard followed up this dynamic number with the country music-tinged “I’m Gone” from Trey Anastasio (Music) and Amanda Green’s (Music and Lyrics) short-lived Broadway musical Hands on a Hardbody, in which she was a standby cast member (albeit one that never had a chance to go on). I had a chance to see this production during its recent run and, based on her performance of the song at Signature, I can easily see her singing it on the Broadway stage. Effectively capturing the plight of a young girl desperate to escape a small town life filled with challenges, she also proved she’s more than just the pretty blonde girl who can sing peppy or angry power ballads.
An emotion-filled rendition of “The Promise of the Morning” from David Kirshenbaum’s under-appreciated musical Summer of ’42 likewise further emphasized this versatility.
A performance of Harold Arlen (Music) and E.Y. Harburg’s (Lyrics) “If I Only Had a Brain” was noteworthy for the unique phrasing and exquisite vocal tone. Ms. Packard may have not sung this number in her Wizard of Oz stage debut – particularly since it’s usually performed by a male – but I more than appreciated her original take on the popular tune. It was only later in the evening that we learned – following Chelsea’s mention of her love for jazz and song arranging – that the musicianship she displayed in that number was only the tip of the iceberg.
This brings me to the highlight of the night. Her jazzy rendition of Frank Loesser’s “If I Were a Bell” (from Guys and Dolls) should be the envy of vocalists and song arrangers alike. Her creative, self-arranged update of the perhaps more than slightly overdone tune featured intricate scats combined with recognizable melody.
True, her technique and vocal control were impressive, but I consider this number to be her standout one for other reasons. It never came off an audience-pandering attempt to demonstrate all the awesome things she can do with her voice. Instead, it was a showcase of her obvious love for music and talent for arranging songs in a way that’s not only interesting, but purposeful. The scats were plentiful, but never overdone. Likewise, the song was not ‘destructed’ to the point of being unrecognizable. That balancing act takes talent.
As if all of this talent wasn’t enough for one evening of song, I’d be remiss not to mention that Chelsea graciously briefly shared her spotlight with singer-songwriter and accomplished instrumentalist Celisse Henderson. Ms. Henderson most recently appeared on Broadway in the 2011 production of Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell – giving one of the more memorable performances in my opinion – and also toured with Ms. Packard in the national tour of Wicked. Her introspective original music (“Stuck on You Blues,” “Enough” and “Me and You”) allowed her to share her lyric writing skills, powerful and soulful voice, and equally impressive guitar, piano, and ukulele skills. She’s definitely worthy of her own cabaret set at Signature. (Are you all listening?)
The two talented friends joined forces with an encore performance of the iconic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” While they are impressive as solo artists, there is something even more magical that happens when they sing together. Although their voices are vastly different, the equally accomplished vocalists blended together nicely. Beautiful harmonies and unique phrasing made the song seem new again, but even more endearing was their obvious enjoyment over singing together. It was simply infectious.
The whole evening was most certainly a success and one that sets the festival off on the right footing.
This cabaret was a one-night-only performance on September 4, 2013.
Signature’s Autumn Cabaret runs thru Sept 21, 2013 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, Virginia 22206 • Tickets are $25. Buy online or call the box office: 703 820 9771