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Review: Judy Kuhn at the Cabaret

March 11, 2017

Go see your favorite band in concert and you are just about guaranteed a mix of the familiar and the not. Catch a singer-songwriter on stage and you can count on at least a few of his or her hits worked into the mix.

But one of the realities that has to be accepted by any fan of cabaret performanceand something newcomers to the form should be aware ofis that hearing the most familiar tunes by a particular artist are not a given when the singer takes the stage.

Sure, there are some acts with simple “and then I was in this show and sang this song, then I was in this show and sang this song” structure. And there are performers who make sure a signature song is at least offered as the encore.

But the chance is just as good that the act isn’t going to include any songs associated with the artist.

Which brings us to Judy Kuhn, who made her Indianapolis debut at the Cabaret March 10 at its temporary home at the Indiana Landmarks Center.

Kuhn made a splash on Broadway in “Chess” and, more recently, in “Fun Home.” On screen, she was the singing voice of Disney’s Pocahontas.

But her Cabaret show didn’t include anything from any of those.

That’s not because of any kind of bait and switch. It’s because of the nature of cabaret. This show wasn’t billed as “Judy Kuhn Sings Her Career.” It was titled ‘Rodgers, Rodgers, and Guettel.” And Kuhn steadfastly stuck to its theme.

That show, which she launched at Lincoln Center, celebrates a unique family of composers. There was Richard Rodgers, who career stretched from swanky tunes with lyricist Lorenz Hart through his famed partnership with the more rustic Oscar Hammerstein to later years with other wordsmiths, including himself.

His daughter, Mary Rodgers, not only wrote the kidlit classic “Freaky Friday,” she also wrote the music for the Broadway hit “Once Upon a Mattress.”

And her son, Adam Guettel, has continued the stage legacy with such shows as “The Light in the Piazza” and “Floyd Collins."

Kuhn was in lovely voice for the program. And her pianist and guitar/madocello (yes, you read that right) accompanists delivered the music beautifully. But there was an obvious imbalance in the material.

Richard Rodger’s career spans much of the 20th century, with an abundance of riches to choose from. Kuhn selected well, with representative songs from his early, middle, and late career, all excellent. She opened with a lovely “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” included Rodger’s cynical collaboration with Stephen Sondheim, “We’re Gonna Be Alright” and delivered a rendition of “If I Loved You” from “Carousel” that was enough to make a musical theater fan mourn the fact that Kuhn never had a shot at playing Julie Jordan.

Mary Rogers' legacy, though, is thinner. Apart from the playful “Song of Love” from “Once Upon a Mattress,” what we got from her songbook was pleasant but not particularly memorable.

As for her son, the challenges are different. I was moved by full productions of his “Floyd Collins,” less so by “The Light in the Piazza” (neither of which, to my knowledge, has gotten a professional production in Central Indiana). In both cases, though, the lyrics don’t sit easily on the music. And unlike his grandfather’s work, Guettel's elusive songs depend greatly on narrative context. Isolated, they more often than not feel like artsongs designed to be admired rather than enjoyed. The composer comes through rather than the character. And no amount of vocal magic from Kuhn could change that.

In her control, though, is song selection and it would have been interesting if Kuhn had unearthed something more recent from Guettel (Not much has been heard of his work since “Piazza” opened in New York in 2005. I’d love to hear something from his aborted musical adaptation of “The Princess Bride” or from his in-the-works adaptation of the films “Days of Wine and Roses” and “Millions.”

Guettel's music can be beatiful. I just hope he pairs himself up at some point wiht a lyricist who can do with him something akin to what Hart and Hammerstein did for his grandfather.


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