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A&E: Beckmann benefits while McLaughlin comes home

October 22, 2007

The Beckmann Theatre has an impressive board, a unique mission and, judging from the benefit performance staged Oct. 15 at the American Cabaret Theatre, the goodwill of a strong talent pool.

What it could use are some actual theatrical productions.

Launching in 2002 and carrying the name of Bob Beckmann, the late arts and civic leader who helped transform downtown, the Beckmann Theatre has offered about a show a year, plus a handful of readings, since its inception. The company's most recent production, though, was back in June of '06.

Since then, there have been two benefit concerts but not much visible being benefited. And no upcoming productions are mentioned on its Web site or were announced at the event (although upon asking, I was told that a new work would be in development soon, first in readings and workshops, then in a full staging).

There is a new tag line, "Theatre Wherever You Are," reflecting a desire to avoid bricks-and-mortar and do site-specific productions (the most notable Beckmann production thus far was 2005's "Asylum," staged on the grounds of the former Central State Hospital). But, five years into its life, the Beckmann remains something of a blank slate.

The benefit event, dubbed Cabaret Fest 2007, did little to define the company-although it did provide far stronger entertainment than most fund raisers. Accompanied by an able trio led by music director John Austin Butsch, 14 singers took turns at the mike. Given the volunteer status, I'll avoid mentioning those who weren't up to the quality of the rest. But I will note that two or three could take a lesson from Kathi Ridley who, according to her bio, sings a few days a week at Sangiovese Italian Restaurant. In her performances of "New York State of Mind" and "Until You Come Back to Me," Ridley demonstrated some of the core characteristics of a cabaret artist-to-watch: She selected material that suited not only her voice but her stage persona. She made the numbers her own while still respecting the songs themselves. She didn't overact or overindicate. She seemed completely in the moment. And she connected to the musicians. After her first song, I looked forward to the lineup cycling back to her. And I left wanting to hear more.

Also impressing were Jerry Hacker, giving sincere reads to "Les Miz's" "Bring Him Home" and "West Side Story's" "Maria"; Dave Ruark, reprising his moving "Breeze Off the River" from last season's American Cabaret Theatre production of "The Full Monty"; and local legend Jimmy Guilford, giving perhaps the only performance I've ever seen of "MacArthur Park" that made sense. The tune that humorist Dave Barry labeled "The Worst Song Ever Recorded," became, under Guilford's control, a haunting vision of a man trying desperately to hang onto memories slipping away.

Any concerns that it was Guilford who was slipping, not the character he was singing, were alleviated when he and Bill Book kicked in to a jaunty, playful duet on the Sam Cooke standard "Bring It On Home to Me."

At the Murat Egyptian Room on Oct. 10 it was Jon McLaughlin's turn to bring it on home. The Anderson native, opening for Paulo Nutini, humbly commanded the stage with piano pounding reminiscent of Billy Joel (Think "Summer Highland Falls" or "Miami 2017").

His rendition of the title song from his "Indiana" album-performed in a venue he confessed to having dreamed about playing for years-made clear that this wasn't just another stop on a tour: It was a concert important to the performer. With that connection, the evening couldn't help but feel like it was a little backward. Headliner Nutini (garnering attention for his "New Shoes" hit) did fine. But this was McLaughlin's night.
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