Big Apple-style cabaret charms at Firehouse

Reviewed by Leo Cotnoir

Last night (Oct.23),  the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage in Johnson City launched its Two by Two Series by magically transporting itself to Manhattan — except for the prices! NYC-based artists Rick Jensen and Susan Winter treated the near-capacity audience to some of the best of Big Apple cabaret. While “cabaret” can refer to any small-group club performance, its classic incarnation — for me, anyway — is in solo performances from The Great American Songbook as the repertoire of 20th century Broadway and Hollywood musicals has come to be known.

Jensen added a new twist to that by performing original songs incorporating what might be called Great American Song and Piano Styles. His first couple of numbers showcased not only his clear, lyrical voice and masterful piano playing but his mastery of the styles of Billy Joel and James Taylor. His The Long Cold Fall captured the essence of Taylor without the maudlin undertones. I must confess that I am not a huge fan of 1980s music so I was glad when Jensen finally brought his own voice to bear in his award-winning, slightly racy My Baby and Me. (As far as I am concerned, Jensen is better than either Joel or Taylor and should let them lie in peace.) Being from Minnesota and perhaps knowing a bit about Binghamton, Jensen could not resist a sing-all, beer hall polka, Hi, Ho! That’s the German Way. (The audience loved it!) And then it was back, stylistically, to the 1980s with the haunting Harbor followed by a beautiful duet with Winter, After All Those Love Songs. It was a fitting tribute to the late Nancy LaMott, one of the greats of the NY cabaret, with whom Jensen first recorded the song. The first set wrapped up with two more Jensen originals, the inspiring Go Ahead and Dream and (for me) the less successful Higher Than Heaven. Jensen’s singing and piano virtuosity are impressive; I only wish he had done more of the standards and fewer of his own songs, which I found a bit repetitious. But then that may well reflect my personal musical taste rather than his.

After intermission Winter took the stage and all I can say is Wow! Not only is Winter a consummate chanteuse, but Jensen is an exceptional arranger and accompanist. Together they tiptoed and whirled through The Great American Songbook with lesser known classics such as Anyplace I Hang My Hat is Home and It Amazes Me, with Winter ranging from kittenish and teasing to full voice belting but never missing a cue. Her playfully naughty reading of An Older Man is Like an Elegant Wine rivaled Nancy Wilson’s, and that is saying a lot! Then Winter turned more serious as she wove the touching story of discovering her parents’ World War II love letters around songs of the era, All My Tomorrows, After Hours and Isn’t it a Pity, then wrapping it up with Irving Berlin’s ironic Mr. Monotony (hey, marriage has its slow moments). In All My Tomorrows Winter displayed her considerable musicianship by navigating a very challenging arrangement without a hint of a missed note. Winter and Jensen brought the evening to close with a string of old standards in new arrangements that showed off both Winter’s superb voice and Jensen’s virtuoso piano — Makin’ Whoopee, That Old Black Magic in New Age-y arrangement that is the best I have heard, Small World with a piano riff evoking Sondheim’s Company, Just in Time with faint echoes of Oscar Peterson — all brought to a satisfying conclusion by I’ve Got the World on a String and Love Rolls On.

OK, it wouldn’t be a NY review without a couple nit picks. Not meaning to diminish Jensen’s impressive solo performance, I would have rather had a full evening of Jensen and Winter working together. I must note that the sound was distracting; the piano was over-amplified— it really needed no amplification for such a small, live room— and at times overwhelmed the singers, forcing them so close to their microphones that the words of the songs sometimes were muddled. For me the essence of cabaret is its intimacy, something many of today’s sound designers do not seem to understand. And, I did find the lighting a bit stagey. But, as I said these are nits. On balance the show was excellent and at times exceptional. I look forward to Jensen and Winter’s return, maybe for an evening together.

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