Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Cabaret Singer Brandon Cutrell Up Close and Personal

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It was like taking a bite out of the Big Apple. This past Friday there was a smart, totally sophisticated and entertaining open mic cabaret hosted by Brandon Cutrell at Tayor's Restaurant in North Adams. This rare event, with arguably the best known host of cabaret in Manhattan brought out the Berkshire's equally smart and sophisticated college and twenty-something set who dined, dished and participated with elan and bountiful talent.

Brian and I spoke before the event, and he was very excited about some of the local singers who were going to perform. "I'm really looking forward to this," he said. "Jonathan Secor (who runs the MCLA Presents! program) has some of the MCLA alum returning for this event, and I can't wait to see Katie Johnson again."

Colleen Taylor (owner of Taylor's), Jonathan Secor (Director of MCLA Special Programs), Jess Conzo (Program coordinator of BCRC) and Brandon Cutrell at MCLA Presents! "A Night at the Cabaret" on May 1, 2009. Photo courtesy of MCLA Berkshire Resource Center.

More photos of the event are in this Flikr photo album.

Brandon generously shared the mic, singing only three songs himself, and letting the talented Berkshires crowd all have a turn. Kate sang several songs to increasingly enthusiastic applause, bringing the evening to its high point with a fabulous rendition of "When You're Good to Mama" from the musical Chicago. Queen Latifah has competition.

Sharon McKnight as Sophie Tucker

Katie's rendition reminded me of the brilliant Sharon McKnight when she discovered the Sophie Tucker songbook. Like Kate, Sharon is a voluptuous singer with a bullhorn of a voice, polished to perfecton. It's worth a visit to Sharon's website to discover the unusual repertoire this actress and singer has developed. She used to appear every summer at the Crown and Anchor in Provincetown, but seems to have moved on to other venues, the entertainment there now more skewed towards lesbian comedians and Ryan Landry's gay satires on famous movies. (Willie Wanker and the Hershey Highway will be there this summer. It is currently on stage until May 24 in Boston at Machine in the basement of the Ramrod.)

Anyway, there was some worry as to whether even Cutrell and an open mike program could fill the main dining room at Taylors, but there was not a seat left to be had, and chairs were brought out from the back to accommodate the crowd. John Barrettt, North Adams' Mayor also helped arrange for a slightly later closing for the restaurant to enable the show to continue after normal dining hours.

This was Brandon's inaugural trip to the Berkshires, and when we first spoke, he was a bit unsure what to expect. At the end of the cabaret Brandon was bemoaning the fact that he had to leave - both the crowd and the environment were very amenable to him. During the show he asked if there were any drag queens present, and when none announced themselves, he promised to bring some to the Berkshires so we could all see one.

The Nancy LaMott Connection

Nancy LaMott (above) changed the course of Brandon Cutrell's career.

I had a little "shop talk" with Brandon just before the performance, and discovered some interesting things about him. I asked him if he was familiar with Nancy LaMott, probably the greatest singer of American Popular Standards of her generation. She was on the verge of stardom when she was struck down, at the age of 43, by Uterine Cancer. "I am in cabaret because of Nancy," he gushed, "I was studying opera at Indiana University, in my second year, and it was a lightbulb moment. For the first time I heard someone connect me to a lyric in a way I had never heard before."

"I wanted to learn how to do that, so I immediately transitioned from opera at Indiana University to theatre studies at the University of Cincinnati's College Conservatory of Music (CCM). I finally saw her at Tavern on the Green in March of '95. She died in December of that year." We gossiped a bit about the battle over LaMott's recordings and rights with her estate and publisher and are happy that despite the unfortunate squabbles, her work is still available.

I wondered about how his own self-titled album was doing, and it turns out it is in its second printing, which is excellent in the rarified cabaret world. "I've been told that whenever I want to do a second CD that the studio time is available. All I have to do is decide what I want to sing next."

So, you may ask, just what is cabaret exactly? To me it is a very personal style of singing, one to one, and I broached the question to Brandon. "To me it is a theatrical art form where anything is possible. The joy of cabaret is that it can be anything you want it to be. It can be about music, or about lyrics, or simply the spoken word. The important thing is that it speaks very directly from the performer to the person listening."

The Randy Harrison Connection

Randy Harrison (above) and Brandon Cutrell attended school (CCM) together

I confessed to Brandon that I heard very little gossip about him, and encouraged him to share. Relationship? "Very involved," he said, "I have a wonderful boyfriend, Robert, who is an actor. He's shooting a film in New York on Friday, so I don't know if he will make it." Turns out he did, and Bob is also a magnificent singer!

I asked him if there was any theatre in his future, that "out" actors like Randy Harrison, Richard Chamberlain (both regulars at the Berkshire Theatre Festival) and Chad Allen (TheatreWorks in Hartford) are quite special to many of us in the Berkshires. "Not me, I'm pretty booked, but I hear Randy is performing again in the Berkshires this summer, In Ibsen's Ghosts. Randy and I went to school together. We were both on a musical theatre track, he's quite a wonderful singer."

"True enough," I said, "but he seems to have focused on straight acting, if you will pardon the expression, rather than musicals, or more body-beautiful TV roles. He has become a very serious actor. I interviewed him last summer and he was so immersed in Waiting for Godot that we didn't talk about the gay aspect at all. He is fully dedicated to honing his craft. To me Harrison is one brilliant and unbelievably intense actor."

"Too intense," said Brandon, "and you can tell him I said so, though he has certainly proven that hard work pays off."

MCLA Presents! stage manager Brinn Kingsley with Brandon Cutrell. Photo Courtesy MCLA Berkshire Cultural Resource Center.

Brandon and a pal at The After Party.

This was the first Friday that Brandon wasn't at The After Party, Manhattan's delightful showtune-jazz-cabaret happening hosted by him. If you are in New York it should not be missed. He also hosts a show every Wednesday evening at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Villiage. (Yes, that Stonewall.) And June 22 Brandon returns to Fire Island for his Monday evening Cherry Grove fun-fests, Broadway at the Beach. We contrasted Provincetown and Fire Island, and both agreed that arriving there each season is a lot like going home. You can get the details on Brandon's website. He even has a song on his CD about Fire Island which celebrates this unique gay destination.

His visit to the Berkshires was a wonderful addition to our cultural events. Let's hope that someone invites him back again to let us hear him really show off his voice with an evening of Brandon Cutrell classics.


Anonymous said...

Larry, loved your interview last year with Randy Harrison and your bringing up his connection with Brandon. However, Brandon and Randy went to Cincinatti University College Conservatory of Music together, not Indiana University.

Larry Murray said...

Oops. my bad, Brandon met him after he switched to musical theatre, and from IU to CCM. Thanks for catching the mistake, it has now been fixed.

Katie Johnson said...

Great review! Thanks, Larry!

- the bullhorn ;)