Review: “Speakeasy Moderne” Stutters Along
The Broadway Blog sent contributor Lindsay B. Davis back in time and it appears she got lost trying to follow along Speakeasy Moderne, a hodgepodge review of Broadway, pop hits and standards from days gone by.
When something old is made new again, one can see if the resurrected object withstands the test of time. When something old is made new and given a modern twist, as in the case of Speakeasy Moderne and its homage to NYC’s Prohibition era nightlife and entertainment, I found myself longing to be transported out of my seat at Stage72 and back to the 1920s itself to escape this hodgepodge and misguided show.
The evening of cabaret style entertainment begins promisingly enough – a stage with velvet curtains, moody lighting, and a scantily clad woman standing over a Mac powerbook pumping a remix of “No Diggity” infused with a ragtime beat. This is going to be fun, I thought, but after Official Hank (Hank Stampfl) kicks things off with “Willkommen” from Cabaret (flirty, light and campy but missing the danger) and the dancers (lead by choreographer Kimberly Schafer) deliver Velma and Roxie’s tag-team routine from Chicago, what becomes clear is the display of talent, while energetic and upbeat, is sub par for New York City. It may not be Broadway but still.
A disclaimer – I am more sensitive than most to the preservation of form, particularly if that form is Top 40 pop music, musical theater or jazz. If you’re going to sing the late, legendary Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”, I question anyone’s ability to touch the greatness of the original — ditto Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been”, Adele’s “Rumor Has It” and perhaps the most offensive, “Falling Softly” from the brilliant musical Once, all reinterpreted and done to deleterious effect — slowing it down to a blues-infested, jazzy version that sounds like it could have been sung by a drugged up Whitney hours before her death is not going to win my favor.
“Titanium,” another catchy pop tune in the Speakeasy Moderne collection (original by DJ/producer Dave Guetta and Aussie singer/songwriter Sia) was butchered by its slow pacing and two dancers who performed a lyrical routine while wrapping guest performer, vocalist Dina Fanai, in a piece of red silk. I heard chuckles in the crowd from audience members, perhaps unsure how to handle the melodramatic lyric delivery of “I’m bulletproof, nothing to lose, fire away, fire away… ” that escalated with every spin of the satin.
Women who are sexy trying to be sexy is simply not sexy and the dancers fall into the trap of trying too hard. Schafer’s choreography is energetic and ambitious, tackling a variety of styles and influences – musical theater, vaudeville hoofer, roaring 20s flapper girl, and burlesque – but is overdone and heavy-handed. The constant movement overcrowds the small stage and in some cases distracts from the vocal performances. The exception is dancer Monica Poulos, who shines and almost steals the show. Her silhouetted performance to a live rendition of “Golden Eye” behind a sheet is devilishly captivating and deliciously hot. A tango infused rendition of The Police’s “Roxanne” is a sultry, memorable and successful reworking of the original.
Songs that stayed true to their original intent and styling were well done, including Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing” and a cover of the Andrews Sisters’ “Rum and Coca Cola”, both performed in 3-part harmony by a refreshing trio women, including Ashley Alana Kenney, Lynsey Buckelew and the naturally charming, sassy and vocally deft Julia Burroughs. Kenney’s “Mein Herr” and Buckelew’s “Single Ladies” both work well and were audience favorites.
The evening is emcee’d by Official Hank (Hank Stampfl), the show’s attractive, fearless leader (and Speakeasy Moderne’s creator/producer) who, while charming and clearly enjoying himself, lacks the humor and vocal heft to sufficiently carry the evening. Stampfl isn’t helped by the lack of cohesive connection between numbers, a structural problem that was illuminated by the occasional dead time on stage between songs and dance routines, nor does he seem at ease with the choreography. Through twirls and the occasional wink/nod to the audience, his efforts are commendable and at many points he wins over the crowd, which is perhaps the thing to note – despite it all the audience (encouraged to dress in their favorite period garb from the 1920s onward) seemed to be enjoying itself immensely and having a grand ole’ time. They sang along and when the show was over, the space quickly transformed into a dance party for all. I may have felt uneasy but the majority seemed to delight in Speakeasy Moderne.
Lindsay B. Davis is an arts/culture journalist, actress, playwright and director. She resides in New York City.