Miniskirts, Microphones and a Crack Ensemble
Cabaret shows at Quality Hill Playhouse are dedicated to “the American songbook,” that revered and narrowly defined catalog of standards that peaks with George and Ira Gershwin and Cole Porter and craps out with the flat, flatulent croak of Billy Joel. Its trademarks: whiteness, cleverness and an elevation of craft above feeling, plus a last-century politeness. If these songs made any kind of mess, they’d happily stick around to help clean up.
For most of this season, J. Kent Barnhart and his singers have worked decade-by-decade through the ol’ songbook, but now that they’re up to the tricky years —Music of the 1960s and 1970s — they’re doing the unthinkable: going by feel and making a mess. That means we get uncanonical rock and soul, with songs from Aretha and the Beatles balancing out Hair and Godspell. That means we get miniskirts and microphones and a crack ensemble. That means Barnhart, sans tux, bangs out Moog-sounding synth chords on “Aquarius,” then sings and plays piano so soulfully on “Bridge Over Troubled Water” that, for the first verse, I didn’t even know it was “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
Most of the other singers are fine, but this show belongs to Barnhart and Tim Scott. One of my favorite performers, Scott is a rockabilly madman with googly eyes and a long, peanut-shaped head. Here, singing “Ticket to Ride,” he barnstorms like Elvis, yowls like Jerry Lee Lewis and also manages a thinned-out Ethel Merman, a mopey Kermit the Frog and Lily Tomlin’s pinched-up phone operator. Clowning, he’s so electric that I don’t know what to make of him; crooning, he goes into a quavery Gene Kelly, which is pleasant enough, but he sometimes looks like Bruce Banner fighting down a Hulk-gasm — he’s just barely holding the madness in. (Both the crooner and the lunatic come out for “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me,” the evening’s highlight.) Fortunately, Barnhart knows his boy has the devil in him and gives him plenty of chances to let it out.