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15 Minutes with Erich Bergen

November 2nd, 2016 Comments off

by Jim Gladstone

(Photo courtesy Erich Bergen via The Broadway Blog.)

(Photo courtesy Erich Bergen via The Broadway Blog.)

On a November night ten years ago, 20-year-old recent college drop-out Erich Bergen flew to San Francisco from his home in New York to start the job he now describes as having “shot me out of a cannon.”

Cast as Bob Gaudio—spring-chicken of the Four Seasons—in the first national tour of the colossally successful Jersey Boys, Bergen spent over six and a half months rehearsing and performing at the Curran Theater in the City by the Bay.

He returns this weekend, bringing his latest cabaret act to Feinstein’s at the Nikko.

“The city has such a mystique for me now,” he said in a recent phone call from Manhattan. “I have amazing, intense memories associated with San Francisco. It seems like the way some friends who traveled around Europe after college feel about Paris. Whenever I go back it’s like this really important time of my life, the people, the music all coming rushing back.”

Once a child-actor—“My parents used to have me imitate all the singers on We Are The World as a party trick”—Bergen made his national debut at 11, playing Dana Carvey’s son on the comedian’s short-lived ABC variety show.

Bergen is only half-joking when he says, “San Francisco is the city where I became a man.”

“My birthday is New Year’s eve. I literally turned 21 there. I remember we had a cast party at a bar around the corner from the theater. I felt so good, like I’d really done something with my life. And I was doing exactly what I wanted to do.”

(Photo courtesy Erich Bergen via The Broadway Blog.)

(Photo courtesy Erich Bergen via The Broadway Blog.)

Playing one of the Four Seasons in Jersey Boys puts a male lead in a slightly perilous situation: The adulation of the band by its fans is mimicked by baby boomer audiences out for a night on the town. It’s not hard for actors who play the roles to feel a bit like rock stars themselves.

“I had a lead role in one of the biggest shows of all time,” recalled Bergen. “I was on the road with it for a year and then opened the resident production in Las Vegas.” As a young, handsome star of that hit production—which went on to become the longest-running Broadway-to-Vegas show ever—Bergen was the toast (or at least one slice of the toast) of the town, buttered up by LA producers and casting agents who caught his act and beckoned him westward.

Not immune to charms and flattery, Bergen missed a few too many Jersey Boys performances for go-sees and screen tests. After two years, he was fired from the Vegas company.

“It was like coming off a big high,” he remembers. “I moved to LA and did that thing that all actors do. Going to audition after audition. Money drying up to the point where you wonder if you’re going to be able to fill the car with gas.”

Bergen picked up occasional small parts on shows in television series including Gossip Girl and Desperate Housewives and also flew back to New York with some frequency, participating in workshops and auditions for Ghost, Wicked and The Book of Mormon, but never landing a lead.

In his Los Angeles downtime, Bergen began to focus on his songwriting, eventually recording a pair of EPs consisting primarily of his original tunes—along with an almost downbeat cover of Madonna’s Open Your Heart.

“In the songs I write and the songs I love, the beat doesn’t come first,” says Bergen, who points to Billy Joel and James Taylor as writing influences. “Melody always wins with me. In twenty years, you’re not going to sit around a campfire and hum a beat. It’s called ‘Name That Tune’ not ‘Name That Beat.’”

The melodies of the great American songbook were attractive enough to Bergen that, in 2012, he did a spell on the road as tap-dancing Billy Crocker in the national tour of Anything Goes. “Bob in Jersey Boys was such a perfect part for me. This didn’t match my strengths as well. And frankly, it didn’t pay as well. I didn’t feel like it was what I should be doing.”

During the Anything Goes tour, Bergen returned to San Francisco, and was delighted to be booked to do his cabaret act on a dark night. Within days of his performance the club abruptly shut down, leaving Bergen with the worst of his San Francisco memories.

Returning to LA from the road and beginning to feel that his career was in a serious downturn, Bergen’s next big break echoed his first: A call from Clint Eastwood, asking him to reprise the role of Bob Gaudio in the movie adaptation of Jersey Boys.

While the film was generally viewed as a flop, the individual performers had a chance to show some star quality. “That film restarted everything for me,” says Bergen.

Erich Bergen plays Blake Moran on 'Madam Secretary' (Courtesy: CBS Broadcasting Inc. via The Broadway Blog)

Erich Bergen plays Blake Moran on ‘Madam Secretary’ (Courtesy: CBS Broadcasting Inc. via The Broadway Blog)

In short order, Bergen won the part of Blake Moran, openly gay assistant to Tea Leoni’s Madam Secretary on the CBS political drama. Rather unexpectedly, the showrunners for the program—which also includes recent Feinstein’s headliner Patina Miller in its cast—have (via karaoke, talent competitions, and the like) come up with opportunities for Bergen to show off his singing chops.

“I did ‘For the Longest Time”’and ‘Fire and Rain,’” he recalls, “And in the Thanksgiving week episode this month I do three separate numbers.”

Bergen’s return to San Francisco takes place during the series’ mid-season hiatus, and he looks forward to visiting some of his local landmarks.

“There’s a little 24-hour diner up the street from the Curran called Café Mason,” he recalls fondly. “It’s a nothing place, but almost every night after Jersey Boys, I went there and had a turkey and avocado sandwich. It was the best sandwich. I’ve never been able to match the joy of it.”

Erich Bergen
Feinstein’s at the Nikko
222 Mason Street, San Francisco
Saturday, November 5, 7 p.m.
Sunday, November 6, 3 p.m.

Michael Feinstein – Back at the Hotel Nikko

October 3rd, 2016 Comments off

by Jim Gladstone

Michael Feinstein (photo: Karl Simone)

Michael Feinstein (photo: Karl Simone)

A few times a year, singer-pianist-musicologist-raconteur Michael Feinstein books himself into his eponymous cabaret room at San Francisco’s Hotel Nikko. Given that Feinstein far more frequently plays concert venues with capacities of over 1000, these intimate gigs are highly anticipated. It’s hard to find a buzzier midweek cultural event in the City by the Bay.

Just four months ago, Feinstein played a remarkable five-night stint paying tribute to the 81- and 92-year-old lyricists Marilyn and Alan Bergman, whose evergreen contributions to the canon of American popular music include “The Way We Were,” “Windmills of My Mind,” and the Tootsie theme, “It Might Be You.”

It was shortly after that impressive run that a return engagement was quickly announced: This past week’s series of “Tribute to Judy Garland” shows. His followers know well that Feinstein considers Garland “the world’s greatest female entertainer” and these performances became a hotter ticket still with the announcement of a special guest performer, Garland’s second daughter, singer-actress Lorna Luft.

At Wednesday’s opening night, the 140-seat room was packed and humming with the anticipation of an audience studded with San Francisco socialites and acolytes of the Great American Songbook, including world-renowned jazz singer Paula West.

Accompanied by an ace quartet as sensitive to the nuances of Feinstein’s vocals as Feinstein is to those of the lyrics, he swept his fans up in a transporting 30-minute opening set that began with “That’s Entertainment” and culminated in a languorous tour-de-force solo turn of The Wizard of Oz standard “If I Only Had A…”

Often performed with only the “brain” verses sung by Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow in the film, Feinstein—accompanying himself on the piano—elegantly elided them with the Tin Man’s “heart” and Cowardly Lion’s “nerve” verses, precisely enunciating to give Yip Harburg’s deliciously witty wordplay as much a showcase as Harold Arlen’s irresistible earworm melody.

This was Feinstein at his finest: reviving and interpreting great music in a manner that not only entertains, but helps audiences focus not only on himself as a performer but on the craft of the songwriters.

What Feinstein wisely doesn’t do is try to imitate the vocal character of great singers of the past. He has a reliably smooth, youthful baritenor and is able to add a bit of brassiness when his interpretations demand, but his greatest strengths are as a humble channeler and showcaser of songs, not as an iconic vocal presence. Save for a few couplets in the role of Dorothy onscreen, Judy Garland isn’t known for singing “If I Only Had A Brain.”

Lorna Luft at the 2014 Vanity Fair Oscar Party. (Photo: Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com via The Broadway Blog.)

Lorna Luft at the 2014 Vanity Fair Oscar Party. (Photo: Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com via The Broadway Blog.)

There’s a part of this reviewer that wishes Michael Feinstein wasn’t know for having so much of a heart. His fond appreciation of Garland, her family, and the network of composers she worked with may provide an explanation for turning over the center of his show to Lorna Luft, who took the stage to thunderous applause and grins of excitement. Here she was! Singing scion to the world’s greatest female entertainer. Alas, Luft is not in Feinstein’s league as an interpreter, nor in her mother’s as a vocal presence.

Gregariously belting “San Francisco” and “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart!” Luft’s pitch was distressingly flat, her delivery expressing enthusiasm at performing for an excited crowd more than a deep engagement with the music at hand. She held notes with bravado unmerited by her vibrato.

Presenting Luft as the centerpiece of Feinstein’s show—even when ostensibly dedicated to her mother—was either intended as an act of generosity or a bit of nostalgic stunt casting. In either case, it did no favors for Luft or the audience.

Feinstein returned to the stage for a few more well-rendered numbers, then brought Luft back up for a dangerously risky rendition of medleys once performed by her mother and Barbra Streisand, including their classic “Happy Days Are Here Again”/”Get Happy” duet from Garland’s 1963-64 television show. With the audience holding its breath, the pair managed to generate a modest success thanks to patter and restraint. That said, it remained clear that there was only one star on the stage.

Jim Gladstone is a San Francisco-based creative consultant and writer. A book columnist and Contributing Editor at PASSPORT, he is the author of an award-winning novel, The Big Book of Misunderstanding.

 

Michael Feinstein & Lorna Luft Pay Tribute to Judy Garland

August 26th, 2016 Comments off
Michael Feinstein (Photo provided by Feinstein's at the Nikko via The Broadway Blog.)

Michael Feinstein (Photo provided by Feinstein’s at the Nikko via The Broadway Blog.)

Two-time Emmy and five-time Grammy Award-nominated Michael Feinstein returns to Feinstein’s at the Nikko with a special salute to the one-and-only Judy Garland for four performances only – September 28 – October 1, 2016.

Celebrated singer and actress Lorna Luft, daughter of Judy Garland, will join Feinstein onstage throughout the engagement. Together, Feinstein and Luft will take audiences on a nostalgic musical journey performing songs from throughout Garland’s illustrious career.

The performance schedule is as follows: Wednesday, September 28 at 7 p.m.Thursday, September 29 at 8 p.m.Friday, September 30 at 8 p.m.; and Saturday, October 1 at 7 p.m. Tickets range in price from $80–$100 and are available now by calling 866.663.1063 or visiting www.feinsteinsatthenikko.com.

Michael Feinstein, Ambassador of the Great American Songbook, has built a dazzling career over the last three decades bringing the music of the Great American songbook to the world. From recordings that have earned him five Grammy Award nominations to his Emmy nominated PBS-TV specials, his acclaimed NPR series and concerts spanning the globe—in addition to his appearances at iconic venues such as The White House, Buckingham Palace, Hollywood Bowl, Carnegie Hall and Sydney Opera House—his work as an educator and archivist define Feinstein as one of the most important musical forces of our time.

In 2007, he founded the Great American Songbook Foundation, dedicated to celebrating the art form and preserving it through educational programs, Master Classes, and the annual High School Songbook Academy. Past graduates of the program have gone on to record acclaimed albums and appear on television programs such as NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.” Michael serves on the Library of Congress’ National Recording Preservation Board, which ensures the future of America’s sound recording heritage.

The most recent album from his multi-platinum recording career is A Michael Feinstein Christmas from Concord Records, featuring Grammy Award-winning jazz pianist Alan Broadbent. Feinstein earned his fifth Grammy Award nomination in 2009 for The Sinatra Project.

His Emmy Award-nominated TV special Michael Feinstein – The Sinatra Legacy, which was taped live at the Palladium in Carmel, IN, aired nationally in 2011. The PBS series “Michael Feinstein’s American Songbook” was broadcast for three seasons and is available on DVD. His most recent primetime PBS-TV Special, “New Year’s Eve at The Rainbow Room”  written and directed by “Desperate Housewives” creator Marc Cherry aired in 2014. For his nationally syndicated public radio program “Song Travels,” Michael interviews and performs alongside music luminaries.

Feinstein was named Principal Pops Conductor for the Pasadena Symphony in 2012. He launched an additional Pops series at the Kravis Center in Palm Beach, Florida in 2014. “The Gershwins and Me,” Michael’s book from Simon & Schuster, features a new CD of Gershwin standards.

Feinstein is Artistic Director of the Palladium Center for the Performing Arts, a three-theatre venue in Carmel, Indiana; Artistic Director for Carnegie Hall’s “Standard Time with Michael Feinstein” in conjunction with ASCAP; and Director of the Jazz and Popular Song Series at New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Lorna Luft (Photo provided by Feinstein's at the Nikko via The Broadway Blog.)

Lorna Luft (Photo provided by Feinstein’s at the Nikko via The Broadway Blog.)

Lorna Luft is the daughter of Judy Garland and Sid Luft. She made her show business debut at age 11 singing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” on a Christmas special of her mother’s CBS television series The Judy Garland Show. Siblings Liza Minnelli and Joey Luft also appeared in this episode. Soon Lorna joined the family act on a summer concert tour that included Garland’s third and final appearance at the Palace Theatre on Broadway. The show was recorded live and released on ABC Records as Judy Garland: At Home at the Palace.

Luft’s own theatrical career has included roles on Broadway, in national tours, European and regional theater productions of shows that include The Boy Friend, Promises, Promises; Grease, Carnival, They’re Playing Our Song; Little Shop of Horrors, Mame; Guys and Dolls; Follies; Gypsy; The Wizard of Oz as well as Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.

She released her debut CD “Lorna Luft: Songs My Mother Taught Me” produced by Barry Manilow and her husband, musician Colin Freeman and authored the 1998 book “Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir.” Luft has toured with the concert Judy: The Songbook of Judy Garland and made a surprise appearance to sing “After You’ve Gone” with Rufus Wainwright at the end of his Carnegie Hall tribute concert commemorating Garland’s celebrated 1961 return to the famed venue.

This year, Lorna has been back on the cabaret scene with a new solo show entitled Accentuate the Positive, as well as guest-starring in An Evening of Movies and Musicals. There’s little evidence of her giving up on what she calls “the family business.” But then, with showbiz in her blood, that probably shouldn’t come as any surprise.

Having a career that spanned over 40 years as an actress and singer, Judy Garland was signed to MGM as a teenager where she starred in dozens of films including “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), “Meet Me in St Louis” (1944), “The Harvey Girls” (1946) and “Easter Parade” (1948) as well as nine movies with costar Mickey Rooney that were known as “backyard musicals” before transitioning to a successful recording and concert career as well as hosting her own Emmy nominated television series on CBS.

Garland’s work has been honored with a Golden Globe Award, a Juvenile Academy Award a Special Tony Award and, at age 39, she became the youngest recipient of the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement in the motion picture industry. Garland was also the first woman to win a Grammy for Album of the Year for her live recording of Judy at Carnegie Hall. In 1997 she was posthumously awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and several of her recordings have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Her performance of “Over the Rainbow” is listed as the number one song of the twentieth century by the National Endowment for the Arts and the American Film Institute which also placed her among the ten greatest female stars of classic American cinema.

For ticket information, visit www.feinsteinsatthenikko.com.

15 Minutes with Barrett Foa

June 18th, 2016 Comments off

by Jim Gladstone

Barrett Foa (Photo provided by Feinstein's at the Nikko via The Broadway Blog.)

Barrett Foa (Photo provided by Feinstein’s at the Nikko via The Broadway Blog.)

“After seven years of being a featured actor,” quips Barrett Foa, who brings his cabaret act to Feinstein’s at the Nikko June 24 and 25 in San Francisco. “It’s nice to get back to being self-indulgent again.”

Behind every joke, of course, is a little truth.

New York born-and-bred, Foa—best known for playing operative Eric Beale in the ensemble of the stalwart CBS drama NCIS: Los Angeles—is a theater kid at heart.

Foa, 38, made his Broadway debut fifteen years ago in the original cast of Mamma Mia! and has also played Princeton/Rod in Avenue Q (Foa was the first non-puppeteer specifically trained for the show) and replaced Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Leaf Coneybear in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

“Television has given me a cushion,” he says, “So I can get back to singin’ and dancin’. I’ve really missed the immediate gratification of laughs and applause that you get from a live audience.”

Barrett Foa (far right) and the cast of 'NCIS: Los Angeles' (Photo: Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock.com via The Broadway Blog.)

Barrett Foa (far right) and the cast of ‘NCIS: Los Angeles’ (Photo: Featureflash Photo Agency / Shutterstock.com via The Broadway Blog.)

“To be honest, that’s why I started putting this show together,” says Foa, who debuted his new act in April at Los Angeles’ Rockwell and played Feinstein’s 54 Below in New York earlier this month.

“Cabaret is really the most self-indulgent of all the art forms,” he says, suggesting that it may also be and antidote-of-sorts to disappearing into formulaic procedural television.

“I’ve dipped my toe into this a bit before, doing some numbers in collaborative shows with a group of friends at Ars Nova and the Duplex in New York, but this is my first full show.”

Called Grin and Barrett, the show began with Foa assembling a long list of his favorite songs—“These are all songs that make me happy every time I hear the first chords play”—and then paring it down to dovetail with a group of anecdotes he wanted to share about his life in and out of the theater.

“It’s not your mother’s cabaret,” he says, noting that the show includes songs by James Taylor, Randy Newman, Rufus Wainwright and other pop composers as well as theater music. “I need it to appeal,” he jokes, “to laypeople as well.”

Barrett Foa at the PaleyFest 2015 Fall TV Preview (Photo: Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com via The Broadway Blog.)

Barrett Foa at the PaleyFest 2015 Fall TV Preview (Photo: Helga Esteb / Shutterstock.com via The Broadway Blog.)

Molding his own show also gave Foa a chance to create structure amidst the unpredictability of ensemble TV series work in Los Angeles compared to a live theater schedule.

“On Broadway, you know exactly where you need to be every night. You plan brunch at 11 and dinner at 5. With a series, you can have a 13-hour day and you don’t necessarily know when you’re going to start or finish. Over time, things have become a little more regular at NCIS and we usually work from very early in the morning and get off at 6 or 7. It’s been interesting for me to have an evening at my disposal instead of providing someone else’s entertainment.”

As he makes clear in his cabaret act, Foa loves losing himself in a character and looks forward to returning to Broadway after NCIS: LA runs its course. “People used to want to cast me as romantic characters like Hero in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum or Rolf in Sound of Music. But I don’t think those are the roles for me any more. I’m ready to be a quirky leading man.”

On hiatus last summer, Foa tested those waters, playing Harold Hill in a successful Connecticut production of The Music Man. “It was a blast,” he recalls, “And I was really grateful to have a chance to play a lead like that.”

The show also held some nostalgic value for Foa, who performed a smaller role in the show while studying theater at the University of Michigan. Also in that cast were friends and fellow Broadway actors, Gavin Creel (Hair) and David Burtka (husband of Neil Patrick Harris).

Foa has fond memories of the Michigan program and this past May 16, joined dozens of fellow graduates in a New York concert celebrating their one-time professor, Brent Wagner, before his retirement.

“Every year I’m out of college I realize how important it was to me. That program really gave me my life.”

And that life, Foa makes clear, has live theater at its heart.

“My heart and soul are in New York. I want to be on stage and I want to be closer to my family. I have a seven-year-old nephew and I want to be more to him than ‘Uncle Barrett from California.’”

Barrett Foa
Feinstein’s at the Nikko
Friday, June 24; Saturday, June 25

 

Jim Gladstone is a San Francisco-based creative consultant and writer. A book columnist and Contributing Editor at PASSPORT, he is the author of an award-winning novel, The Big Book of Misunderstanding.

15 Minutes with Judy Kuhn

June 1st, 2016 Comments off

by Jim Gladstone

Judy Kuhn (photo provided by 'Fun Home')

Judy Kuhn (photo provided by ‘Fun Home’)

Kuhn’s work as Helen Bechdel, long-suffering wife of a closeted gay man, in the show adapted from lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s autobiographic novel, is indelible. While Fun Home might easily have played primarily as a father-daughter story, the distillation of intensity, bewilderment and loss Kuhn brings to her show-stopping performance of Helen’s soliloquy song, “Days and Days” adds astonishing dimensions to the show as a whole. It presses audiences to reconsider the entire story from a third perspective.

It is a wrenching portrayal, and one would hardly blame Kuhn for taking a hard-earned hiatus for purposes of rest and relaxation alone. But the 57-year-old’s six-week break was long-planned to allow a much-needed hip replacement surgery.

But for Kuhn, creation and recuperation went hand in hand. In the midst of her successful recovery—“We are so lucky to be living in a time when this is not such an ordeal and you can be walking on crutches in days,” she said during a recent phone conversation—Kuhn put finishing touches on her new concert’s repertoire.

Judy Kuhn in 'Fun Home' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Judy Kuhn in ‘Fun Home’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

The program, an evolution of Kuhn’s one-night American Songbook show at Lincoln Center last year, brings together songs from a single family’s three generations of composers: Richard Rodgers, daughter Mary Rodgers (Once Upon A Mattress), and grandson Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza, Floyd Collins).

“I first heard Adam’s work,” says Kuhn, “through my friend Tina Landau who directed the premiere of Floyd Collins. I’m actually not the kind of person who has ever spent much time listening to cast albums. But I listened to that one over and over, I just found it so compelling.”

“At some point, I found out that he was Richard Rodgers’ grandson and I was so fascinated. When I thought about the opening of Floyd Collins [set in an Appalachian coal mining community] and the opening of Oklahoma, I could see a connection. There’s this idea of American optimism and the search for what you’re meant to do, a sense that ‘Something really good is about to happen to me.’”

“And then, when you bring in Mary, you see that all three of them are romantics. They write the most beautiful ballads that express people’s need for connection. In the past, we’ve seen multiple generations of actors and authors, but I’ve never seen this sort of thing with composers.”

Whether exploring the Rodgers family or the Bechdel family, Kuhn, who also works as an acting teacher, says she doesn’t like to make a distinction between her acting and her singing.“It’s all storytelling,” she says. “Sometimes we use music to help tell the story. Shakespeare used verse.”

“I always start with the lyrics. I don’t know how to do a song without a good lyric. Language is the leading element, its what needs to be communicated,” says Kuhn. “Then I think about what the composer has done with the music to lift the lyric up. What are the musical cues the composer is offering me as a storyteller. There are some highly trained singers who have never been asked to focus on anything but perfect sound.”

“I’ve never been interested in doing any writing,” says Kuhn. “I never wanted to learn to play the violin. I like being a detective and trying to understand how to best tell a story.”

Judy Kuhn
Feinstein’s at the Nikko
222 Mason Street, San Francisco
June 3, doors: 6:30 p.m/Show: 8
June 4, doors: 5:30 p.m./Show: 7 p.m.

Jim Gladstone is a San Francisco-based creative consultant and writer. A book columnist and Contributing Editor at PASSPORT, he is the author of an award-winning novel, The Big Book of Misunderstanding.

15 Minutes with Laura Osnes

April 18th, 2016 Comments off

 by Jim Gladstone

Two-time Tony Award nominee Laura Osnes appears at Feinstein’s at the Nikko in San Francisco on April 22 and 23. Jim Gladstone chatted with her about the difference between theater roles and nightclub performances.

Laura Osnes (Photo: Nathan Johnson via The Broadway Blog.)

Laura Osnes (Photo: Nathan Johnson via The Broadway Blog.)

“I had never planned to perform in a cabaret setting,” recalls two-time Tony nominee Laura Osnes, recalling her 2012 debut at the ne plus ultra of such venues, The Café Carlyle. “Someone from there got in touch with my agent and asked if I’d do it.”

“I was so nervous,” says Osnes of being asked to headline a venue associated with the gimlet-eyed cosmopolitan likes of Elaine Stritch, Bobby Short, and Eartha Kitt.

Regularly cast—and admittedly typecast—in ingénue roles including South Pacific’s Nellie Forbush and the title role in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella on Broadway, the 30-year-old, devoutly Christian Minnesota native felt anxious that “I wouldn’t be enough” to fulfill cabaret audiences’ expectations of sophisticated confessional entertainment.

“Cabaret is so much more vulnerable,” says Osnes. “To me, it’s vastly different than the theater, where you’re in a costume with a character to hide behind. The intimacy of it is an amazing opportunity for audiences, but it was nerve wracking for me.”

“My confidence has grown a lot,” she notes of the subsequent four years, during which she’s developed three additional cabaret sets. “It’s been two years since my last Broadway show”—she’s slated to return in a new musical, The Bandstand, next year—“So I’ve been able to grow more comfortable with concert and cabaret performances where I really have to put myself out there.”

That said, notes Osnes, “I’ve worked Norah Jones and Sarah Bareilles songs in my cabaret shows, but tend to stick to theater songs. That’s what I love and that’s what I know. I do try to find ways to connect them to stories from my life to make them more personal than they’d be in a show.”

Osnes’ love of theater music has been lifelong, beginning with playing a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz in second grade. Continuing to appear on stage through high school, she enrolled in college as a music theater major, only to drop out after a year to “do the work I was studying to do.”

Yet a performing apprenticeship at the Minneapolis Children’s Theater Company and roles at the local Chanhassen Dinner Theaters are not obvious paths to Broadway stardom.

laura osnesIt was during a run as Sandy in the dinner theater’s production of Grease when Osnes was spotted and cast as a contestant in the television competition, Grease: You’re the One That I Want. As the winner, Osnes got to play the role on Broadway, where she was quickly recognized as more than a television gimmick. (The overall production fared considerably less well, described by The New York Times as “a musical set in a high school that feels like a musical put on by a high school.”) 

“I’ve had a charmed career,” Osnes says. “But part of the impetus for this new cabaret act that I’m doing at Feinstein’s is to let people see that there’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes; that performers have failures as well as successes.”

In the show, called Paths Not Taken, Osnes present songs she hasn’t had the opportunity to sing in stage productions, several because after making final callbacks, she didn’t get cast in the roles.

“Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid, “Heather on the Hill” from Brigadoon, “Til There Was You,” from The Music Man, and “I Could Have Danced All Night,” from My Fair Lady are among the selections Osnes will sing at Feinstein’s, accompanied on piano by her music director, Fred Lassen.

Despite the fact that her last Manhattan role was Polly Peachum in Threepenny Opera, it’s clear that Osnes tastes run toward the wholesome.

“I still haven’t seen The Book of Mormon,” she confesses, though she has twice appeared as a featured vocalist with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. “I did do Cabaret in high school. It’s not something that I would typically be up for. But its part of being a stage performer, getting to be different than yourself, getting to act sexy.”

As a PG-leaning Christian, how does Osnes feel about working with a significant number of gays and lesbians in the New York theater world and knowing that Broadway musicals have a large gay fan base?

“I love my job and the people I work with,” she says. “In my heart, I know that God put me here to love, not to judge.”

Laura Osnes
Feinstein’s at the Nikko
222 Mason Street, San Francisco
April 22, doors open at 6:30 p.m.; show at 8 p.m.
April 23, doors open at 5:30 p.m.; show at 7 p.m.

Jim Gladstone is a San Francisco-based creative consultant and writer. A book columnist and Contributing Editor at PASSPORT, he is the author of an award-winning novel, The Big Book of Misunderstanding.

Interview: Betty Buckley

November 12th, 2014 Comments off
Betty Buckley (photo: Victory Tischler-Blue via The Broadway Blog.)

Betty Buckley (photo: Victory Tischler-Blue via The Broadway Blog.)

It’s a busy, long weekend ahead for Betty Buckley. From Thursday through Sunday (November 13-16), the Texas-based Tony-winner brings her latest program of intimate interpretations to Feinstein’s at the Nikko, presenting distinctive idiosyncratic spins to standards and showtunes.

Sunday night also brings the premiere of Buckley’s vanity-eschewing guest gig on acclaimed HBO series, Getting On, in which she plays a lonely alcoholic patient in the show’s geriatric ward (Her character shares an impromptu same-sex kiss with Laurie Metcalf’s Doctor Jenna James).

And then, after a cross-continental flight, Buckley will take to the stage of the Al Hirschfield Theater in Manhattan as part of Everybody, Rise!, a one-time memorial tribute to the late Broadway doyenne, Elaine Stritch.

From the cabaret stage, to national television, to the Great White Way, Buckley, at 67, continues to nimbly move between media in what she describes as a deeply fulfilling personal path that has carried her from a childhood in Fort Worth, Texas, to a Broadway debut in 1776, to television stardom as stepmother Abby on the 1977-81 television drama Eight is Enough, to indelible turns as the original Grizabella in Cats and Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.

“You have to love what you do,” said Buckley in a phone conversation last week, sharing some of the advice she offers to the students in multi-day master classes she regularly teaches around the country—and also reflecting on the vicissitudes of a career that has not brought her back to a Broadway musical since The Triumph of Love in 1997. “You have to really love the craft of storytelling, singing, and acting.”

“That’s what keeps you buffered from the winds of show business, because those are things you can always go back to, engage with, and keep working on. If you really love the work, that can save you from all the rejection.”

“Begin by knowing that everyone’s a star,” Buckley tells her students, “and then dedicate yourself to being an artist. A necessary artist.”

Take the leap to read about Buckley’s latest album, Ghostlight.

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Exclusive Interview: Lea DeLaria

June 27th, 2014 Comments off
Lea DeLaria (photo courtesy of Feinstein's at the Nikko via The Broadway Blog.)

Lea DeLaria (photo courtesy of Feinstein’s at the Nikko via The Broadway Blog.)

“One of the best things Orange is the New Black has given me is straight boys,” says Lea DeLaria, who plays butch Big Boo on the hit Netflix series. “I spent many years having teenage boys spit in my face and call me a fat dyke, so its pretty amazing to have young guys coming up and wanting to have their picture taken with me, saying saying ‘I love you, my girlfriend loves you.’”

“It doesn’t matter to them that I’m a fat old dyke. Big Boo is funny. And funny is sexy.”

“When I started doing stand-up at San Francisco comedy clubs in 1982,”says DeLaria, who swings back through town for a Pride Eve cabaret performance at Feinstein’s at the Nikko tomorrow night. “Back then, I would spend a third of my time on stage dealing with straight guys heckling me.”

“The world has changed, and honestly, without wanting to sound like I’m patting myself on the back, I consider myself a person who helped effect that change.”

The millions of 25-and-under Orange fans who have just discovered over the past two years may have no idea that their TV diesel diva is an accomplished musical performer.

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Justin Vivian Bond: Love Is Crazy

June 20th, 2014 Comments off
Justin Vivian Bond (photo: David Kimelman via The Broadway Blog).

Justin Vivian Bond (photo: David Kimelman via The Broadway Blog).

“Whenever I’m back in San Francisco, I love to shake my parts at [popular drag-and-dancing extravaganza] Trannyshack,” notes Justin Vivian Bond, when a recent conversation turns to the blow-up over the use of the terms tranny and she-male on RuPaul’s Drag Race. “I don’t have any problem with the word.”

“People are very invested in binary assignments of a single gender. Most people think that you should want to be male or female. But a lot don’t. I’m one of them. It’s been an ongoing struggle to name that space between the two genders, so I don’t want any words that people have claimed for themselves to be eradicated.”

“But,” Bond adds, “I’m glad the debate has been happening, because whatever side I happen to be on, it leads to valuable discussion and makes people think. I ran into RuPaul at the premiere of Hedwig on Broadway right after the episode was pulled from the air, and I thanked him for stirring it up.”

Bond is, in fact, back in San Francisco this pre-Pride weekend to shake parts, croon tunes and crack wise in a debut engagement at Feinstein’s at the Nikko. For San Franciscans its a relatively rare opportunity to get up close and personal with Bond in one of the city’s most intimate venues (at under 200 seats, Feinstein’s jewel box cabaret is approximately five times smaller than the Great American Music Hall and Castro Theater, where Bond has played in past forays to the Bay).

“I always have so much fun here, because this is the city where I feel like I have the most true friends; the people I’d be happy to celebrate Christmas or Thanksgiving with. The show I’m doing this weekend, Love Is Crazy, was actually born when I was in San Francisco about a year ago doing some benefits. I was in my hotel room, fiddling with my iPod and I just started to take a look at all the different songs with the word ‘love’ in the title.”

Bond first showcased the results of his research this past Valentine’s Day weekend as a special concert event in Paris, threading a cockeyed collection of tunes together with bittersweet autobiographical anecdotes and barbed commentary.

While spending time in the city, Bond can often be found passing time people-watching on the patio at Cafe Flore in the Castro.

“I’m not a super nostalgic person, but I do like to sit there and breathe and take in everything that’s gone on in my life and in the world since I first moved to San Francisco back in 1985 (Bond now calls New York home base). “This city certainly has its difficulties, but for us queer people, it certainly isn’t as terrifying as it was in the 80s and early 90s.”

After heading back east for much of the summer to host and curate a cabaret series on the Bard College campus (The handpicked acts include Molly Ringwald’s jazz combo, Amanda Palmer, and comedic musicians The Xanadudes), Bond will return to California to headline the Luscious Queer Music Festival at Saratoga Springs in late August.

Love is Crazy
Saturday and Sunday, June 21-22.

Feinstein’s at the Nikko, 7 p.m.

Interview: Leslie Jordan—Melodramatic and Highly Pragmatic

January 31st, 2014 Comments off

Contributor Jim Gladstone chats with Emmy winner Leslie Jordan.

Leslie Jordan

Leslie Jordan

“What amazes me,” says Leslie Jordan, who will spin bawdy biographical yarns in Fruit Fly at Feinstein’s at the Nikko in San Francisco this Friday night. “Is that there are gay kids now who don’t remember Will & Grace.”

“I met a boy on a plane last summer, 16 years old, gay as a goose. He said ‘I think my mom watched that’. I thought ‘Whaaaaaat?!!’ But it’s true, I won my Emmy for that in 2006, so he was only 9 years old then.”

Jordan, 58, who will spin bawdy biographical yarns in Fruit Fly at Feinstein’s at the Nikko this Friday night, admits that he once hoped his sitcom fame from playing Will & Grace’s Beverley Leslie would assure him a steady stream of lucrative television and movie roles.

“After I won that award,” he recalls on the phone from his home in Los Angeles, “I thought, well I’m gonna just sit back and reap the rewards.”

But juicy Hollywood roles have come few and far between for the 4-foot-11 Tennessee-accented character actor (One recent exception being a three-episode jaunt in American Horror Story). And Jordan, who cut his teeth in live theater, has clear priorities when it comes to stage work.

“I’m very comfortable getting on stage, riffing on my own stories. And I’m very lazy when it comes to doing things that aren’t my own. I was offered a role in a new show about cross-dressers in the Catskills by Harvey Fierstein, with Joe Mantello directing [Casa Valentina opens at the Manhattan Theater Club in April]. Wonderful, right?”

“No! I’m done with New York theater. Those eight performances a week are a nightmare.  And they pay $1000 a week for eight weeks of rehearsal. I can make four grand a night out on the road telling my own stories.”

In addition to feathering his nest, Jordan’s dishy one-man storytelling shows have won critical acclaim. The New York Times wrote that Jordan’s coming of age tales in My Trip Down the Pink Carpet combine “a writer’s eye for detail with an actor’s facility for mimicry and a stand-up comedian’s knack for injecting spontaneity into oft-told stories.”

And SF Weekly called Like a Dog on Linoleum hysterical, poignant and endlessly entertaining.”

“The stories I tell in Fruit Fly are about my relationship with my mother. And my biggest goal right now is for my mother to be able to go to her grave knowing that her children are really well taken care of. The best way for me to do that is to go out on the road and tell my own stories.”

“I’ve been acting for 30 years. I’m way past starving for the art. Write me a check!”

Leslie Jordans January 31 performance at Feinstein’s at the Nikko is sold out.