Teachers in the performing arts know the discourse: “Well, that was pretty lame.” “Not yet, but getting closer!”
They’re the kind of self-critical disclaimers gifted but insecure students make after a disappointing performance, usually because they haven’t adequately rehearsed. But these and other words came from show biz veterans Alan Campbell and Lauren Kennedy, during the opening night of Beyond Broadway , their new cabaret closing the Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy festival this weekend.
I’ve never met a worthy artist who wasn’t a decent critic in their own right. Still, the pros most often save the audible self-dissection until after the show.
Not this pair. Last Wednesday they good-naturedly assessed problematic segues, blown blocking and patter gone wrong throughout, publicly identifying what didn’t work. Before a packed house of paying customers.
Now that takes chutzpah. Not to mention unprofessionalism.
Since Campbell and Kennedy presumably knew every working critic in the region was in the room that night, perhaps their running commentary was intended as something of a preemptive strike. Either way, this show wasn’t ready opening night. Good things usually happened when they sang. But truly awkward, unrehearsed transitions and poorly thought-out personal stories repeatedly took this show toward the rocks while our hosts surreally kept us posted on its deficits.
With assorted Broadway and touring credits under their belts–along with the odd Tony nomination–Kennedy and Campbell’s serious chops were indisputably on display during Wednesday’s 90-minute dry run.
The pair convinced in an opening duet fusing “Come Fly with Me” with “Come Dance with Me.” They truly amused with the two-song set from Swing!, “Two and Four” and “Hit Me With a Hot Note.”
Though Brian Hunt’s sound mix kept Campbell’s voice relatively buried, individual triumphs were plentiful. Kennedy’s turn on “The Music that Makes Me Dance” stopped the show, after David Friedman’s show-bizzy satire “My Simple Christmas Wish (Rich, Famous and Powerful).” Campbell’s understated rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon” scored, after a Bobby Darin tribute, “As Long as I’m Singing.”
Pianist Michael Halbert’s prismatic arrangements for bassist Damon Brown, Carlton Miles on drums, reedman Steve Rose, trumpeter Michael Mole and Mike Kris on trombone were tasteful, appropriate.
But random, rambling between-song patter repeatedly took us deep into the realm of Too Much Information on opening night. Kennedy’s formless reminiscing about the night before seeing City of Angels marred a lovely, torchy take on “Lost and Found.” Earlier, her only exit from a distended intro into “I Could Do Better Than That” involved stopping herself in mid-sentence and saying, “Shut up, blondie, and sing!”
Kennedy’s even stranger intro to “The Dream I Dreamed” from Les Miserables seemed a backhand to the show and its fans (“How do I say this?” she fretted. “Everyone wanted to be in that show back then…”).
What can I add to this couple’s on-stage self-critique? Re-examine (and script) every word spoken on stage–particularly those that seem a dig at one other. Do we really need to know about Home Depot commercials and present casting difficulties? How one bombed for Sondheim–and might bomb for us? How easily the other got to Broadway? Which stories might be read on some level as fingering jealous old wounds when everyone doesn’t get the joke?
And re-think Campbell’s “rock and roll medley,” which demonstrated Broadway’s unfortunate tendency to sterilize earthier source material. I can say what Campbell brought to “Grateful,” but not to “Old Time Rock’n’Roll” or “Shout.” White-boy soul is not his strongest suit; his hiccup of a throat catch at the end of “Only You” only seems to mock it. Finally, beware smugness. If a rendition adds nothing to a song but ridicule, cut it.
E-mail Byron Woods at email@example.com.