The Crazy Coqs Cabaret at Brasserie Zédel,
20 Sherwood St, London W1
Those who have never experienced a great interpreter of song in an intimate setting, one comfortable with their material who can talk to their audience, don’t know what they’re missing. Both Crazy Coqs and The Matcham Room have attracted the cream of New York’s cabaret scene (KT Sullivan, Karen Akers, Judy Kuhn) and British masters of the form (Barb Jungr), as well as coaxing newcomers to try this deceptively tricky art form.
Cabaret, in the right hands, is a great art form. Exemplars such as Barbara Cook, Michael Feinstein or Elaine Stritch can transport audiences and alter totally how you hear a great song. In Britain, cabaret still has an image problem, exemplified by the ‘cabaret’ section of Time Out magazine which actually lists burlesque, an entirely different beast. For some, cabaret conjures up Weimar Berlin, or Jacques Brel; for others a smokey jazz dive. For many theatricals it is seen as a chance to dust off their old party pieces. It’s a broad church. However, these exciting new venues offer London audiences a chance to re-discover the form, and thankfully they all insist on silence during the music.
The best cabaret artists, naturally, are those who devote most time to it, and while this is not always easy because of the economics involved, over time the great are great because they learn to be themselves. Those from a jazz background make out best because they can respond to an audience. Those from the pop world often deliver wonderfully produced and arranged sets, but struggle to downscale to an intimate room. Musical theater actors are a mainstay of the art form but they often struggle most as they can’t work up the courage to stand before an audience, emotionally naked, without the protection of a character to hide behind.
Janie Dee, who did a week at Crazy Coqs in January, is a good example of the latter. A double Olivier Award winner, who has enviably conquered musical theater and straight plays, she’s undoubtedly a great talent. On her first night here, however, she was tentative and late. Delivering an extremely polished set of numbers, with excellent accompaniment from Ben Atkinson at the piano, she rarely let the audience in. Hiding behind props and “business”, each number was frenetically dramatized. During I Am Changing from Dreamgirls, she sensually stripped from chic black evening gown into a dashing tuxedo. For Smoke Gets In Your Eyes she draped herself against a marble pillar, cigarette holder in hand, and outvamped Lauren Bacall; all great on a musical stage, but in a cabaret room this constitutes gilding the lily. Tom Lehrer’s great Poisoning Pigeons in the Park was done in the British style à la Tomfoolery, where much of its dry, mordant wit is lost. Ending with So Long Dearie from Hello Dolly, which she has just performed to great acclaim at the Leicester Haymarket, she was on firmer footing, and there she shone. Overall, a sterling effort, if lacking in the informality which good cabaret demands.
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