Los Angeles Cabaret Review: JOAN RYAN – ON THE EDGE (with special guest Eric McCormack at Catalina)

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by Tony Frankel on June 11, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

WHEN A BELT DOESN’T HOLD UP AN ACT

There was a time when American cabaret singers simply sang songs—no social commentary, no motifs, and no directors were necessary because the audience was accustomed to great songs treated with unique vocal stylings by distinctive entertainers. Even when cabaret began to decline in the 1960s, headline singers—whether at Carnegie Hall, Vegas, or an intimate venue—stuck to this tried-and-true format, tossing in a little patter for good measure. Relatively inexpensive to produce, cabaret in the 1970s and 80s was a great way for singers and songwriters to showcase their stuff, especially in New York, where you could catch the hottest talent in the land at The Duplex, Eighty-Eights, Don’t Tell Mama, and other piano bar/cabaret/supper clubs.

Joan Ryan-On The Edge. Photo by Aimee CuramengWhile some of these institutions still exist, the proliferation of mass media has taken business away from these watering holes, and singers are rethinking their acts by spicing them up with themes, directors, and more adventurous selections. But turning an evening of cabaret into a one-person show with songs is a tricky business, as super-talented belter Joan Ryan proved at a one-night only shindig at Catalina Jazz Club.

A reworking of some previous material from her cabaret shows of the past few years, On the Edge has L.A. local Ryan, who made a name for herself in Ruthless! at the Canon in 1993, taking us on a journey from LP-loving teen to working actress to family woman. 3 recent cabaret acts I saw were autobiographical: Jeremy Jordan, Daisy Eagan, and Laura Benanti. Eagan may have lacked vocal strength and Benanti may have included some odd selections, but their star quality and genuine delivery saved the day. As with Jordan, Ryan glosses over her life in an attempt to make her selections more relevant. While stories about her daughter or an audition or a failed relationship make it easier to tie songs together and write patter, the disadvantage is that the act comes across as hackneyed and calculated.

Joan Ryan-On The Edge, photo by Aimee CuramengThis isn’t about talent. Talent is ubiquitous. This is about shaping a show. Ryan, who is in great shape with pearly-white teeth, shows hints of a mean deadpan and a glimmer of comic timing, but she’s here to show off her greatest asset: a strong belt you can hear all the way to Poughkeepsie. She opens a funny medley with “My name is Joan, and I’m a Belt-aholic,” giving us an overstated version of Linda Ronstadt’s cover of Phil Everly’s “When Will I Be Loved,” and then interrupts with, “Most girls wanted a belt from Armani; I wanted a belt from Betty Buckley.” It’s also a cut-up when she turns the lullaby “Rock-a-bye Baby” into a belter (“My daughter’s going to need a lot of therapy”).

Unfortunately, she consistently deviated into bombastic belting when a more understated analysis of these tunes would have worked better. Her rendition of “Shall We Dance” began as a ballad but soon became positively ear drum-shattering and she disconcertingly ended phrases with a spoken word that fell away in place of emotional authenticity. And the last note of this and many other songs would have been more appropriate had she been on a tugboat in New York harbor with William Wyler filming her from a helicopter.

Joan Ryan-On The Edge - photo by Aimee CuramengWith a five-member back-up band, led by pianist and music director Todd Schroeder, Ryan’s rock-concert decibel cabaret begins with her in the audience singing a clichéd tune about “Home, love and family; It will never be complete if I don’t have you,” that sounded 70s with an edge of disco (it would help if Ryan told us who wrote these songs). As cameramen wandered through the house filming people applauding (and critics taking notes), we got mostly medleys until she incongruently told us of a homeless kid she saw under a bridge, and belted in toto one of those songs that with “Memory” should be avoided in cabarets: “Bring Him Home” from Les Miz. Her voice may be as healthy as a newborn babe, but her rendition was slick, and the whole set-up felt manufactured and insincere.

JOAN RYAN - ON THE EDGE  - PosterShe seemed most comfortable in humorous outings, including Rickie Lee Jones’ “Danny’s All-Star Joint” and “It Will Never Be That Way Again” from Ruthless! But from 70s (Cristopher Cross’s “Sailing,” Bread’s “If”)  to Broadway (Sondheim’s “Move On” mixed with Schwartz’ “Meadowlark”), the tunes just didn’t seem in her groove. I’ve seen Ryan before; I know she can perform, and I know she can sing, but I suspect that she told Schroeder and director Andrew McBean what she wanted to do and they obliged, instead of making the show unique with songs that showed off her acting skills. Here, she’s either acting kittenish or being a knockoff of The Merm, and it just didn’t gibe for me.

Here’s a snapshot of the “journey through the life and eclectic career” of Joan Ryan at 54 Below in New York, in the same dress she wore at Catalina Jazz Club:

Special Guest ERIC McCORMACK with Joan Ryan-On The Edge - photo by Aimee CuramengWith a portion of the proceeds benefitting The Trevor Project, Ryan had as her guest Will & Grace’s Eric McCormack, who seemed to intimidate Ryan during a duet of “Suddenly Seymour” from Little Shop of Horrors; she got giggly and broke “character.” Charming, unaffected, and affable, McCormack (who was the best Harold Hill I have ever seen in The Music Man on Broadway) took the stage like a pro, offering a lovely rendition of Burton Cummings’ “Dream of a Child” (McCormack actually mentioned who wrote the song). When he left the stage (regrettably), Ryan came back on with, “How can I follow THAT?” Welllllllll…

photos by Aimee Curameng/Broadway World

Joan Ryan – On the Edge
Catalina Jazz Club AKA Catalina Bar & Grill
6725 W. Sunset Blvd in Hollywood
played on June 1, 2014
for more info, visit www.JoanRyan.com

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