Thursday, October 18, 2012

Sherie Rene Scott engages in hilarious and poignant soul-searching in "Piece of Meat" at 54 Below

By Rob Hartmann

At its best, the art of cabaret represents the peak of the storyteller’s craft. From a simple beginning, the yarn-spinner draws you in to a tale which takes you places you never quite expected to go – through twists and turns which make perfect sense at the time, although in the end you aren’t quite sure exactly how you arrived home again.

Sherie Rene Scott, in her new show, Piece of Meat, currently playing at the elegant midtown cabaret room 54 Below, demonstrates her complete mastery of cabaret and storytelling. This should come as no surprise to those who saw her earlier work, Everyday Rapture, for which she was Tony-nominated as both performer and co-author.

Ms. Scott is a professional who knows exactly how to capture an audience from her first entrance, in a deftly hilarious rendition of “5 Years Time” (by English indie-folk band Noah & The Whale.) The evening’s music ranges from the Broadway standard (1939’s “Are You Havin’ Any Fun”) to Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney, Annie Lennox and the Talking Heads – all innovatively arranged by musical director Todd Almond. Mr. Almond, an accomplished theater composer-lyricist, also contributes two songs to the lineup: “Oh Sean”, an ode to a relationship sung by someone who finds herself more cynical than she is willing to admit; and the haunting encore, “This Is Why We Do This” (a collaboration between Mr. Almond and Adam Bock.)

To fully explain the details of the story with which Ms. Scott beguiles the room would be to destroy some of its magic. Suffice it to say that it begins with (as the title says) a piece of meat – or rather, a craving for meat that puzzles Ms. Scott, a longtime vegetarian who has proudly survived for years on “Tic Tacs and applause”. The journey to understand her craving takes her from encounters with a gyro on Ninth Avenue, to her youth poring over pictures of vegetarian Linda McCartney in Life magazine, to a time spent with a gay-for-pay hustler boyfriend with a yin-yang tattoo – and ultimately to conversations with present-day Sir Paul McCartney and the Dalai Lama.

The songs float in and out of the narrative effortlessly, as the mood pivots from a snappy comic tone to quieter moments of reverie. Ms. Scott is a modern incarnation of a classic Broadway type: a wide-eyed soul who sees the world with a particular mix of naïveté and bubbling wonder (who blithely dances across tabletops to retrieve a disco ball from a bow-tied-but-shirtless fella) but who, in time, reveals a carefully hidden wistfulness and longing. Her voice shifts easily from a deliciously bright pop soprano with a Broadway zip, to a more plaintive, pure and folky sound. Ms. Scott inhabits all the songs fully – to the point where it seems that music disappears and the audience is simply being treated to a full-on glimpse of the performer’s soul.

Mr. Almond, at the piano, is joined by Alana Dawes on bass (who contributes some beautiful legato phrases in the instrument’s upper registers) and Levy Lorenzo on percussion. Mr. Lorenzo supplies everything from a calypso beat to mesmerizing work on the vibraphone. In one instance, he captures a shimmering undersea mood to accompany Ms. Scott’s story of an underwater encounter which seems to begin as a comic anecdote, but which deepens into something transcendent.

Piece of Meat was presented earlier this year at Australia’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival. It seems that the evening might continue to evolve; certain narrative threads could easily expand further, if Ms. Scott and Mr. Almond wished to lengthen the show. However, the evening in its current form is absolutely satisfying – and the audience is left hungry for more (no pun intended.) The show feels dreamlike and at the same time very much of the present moment in the issues it explores. Ms. Scott’s particular brand of deadpan comic musings has the ability to completely suspend the audience’s disbelief. If Ms. Scott has not actually exchanged chatty e-mails with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, then please don’t tell me: I prefer to live in a world where this is real.

Mention must also be made of the venue itself, the gorgeous 54 Below. Designed by Tony-award-winning set designer John Lee Beatty, the restaurant and bar evoke the vanished glamour of a 1920s speakeasy along with Parisian Art Nouveau elegance. The room strikes the perfect note of intimacy – a feeling of warmth and clubbiness (golden lighting, leather-covered tables) without overpacked claustrophobia. The food was smartly done, and the service was expertly coordinated with the show: plates magically appeared and were silently whisked away.

If Sherie Rene Scott had lived in another era, Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart and the Gershwins would all have been battling one another for the opportunity to create shows for her. We’re lucky that today, Ms. Scott (with her collaborators) creates a unique theatrical world for herself.

Sherie Rene Scott at 54 Below: Piece of Meat. Musical direction and arrangements by Todd Almond. Choreographer: Michael Lynch. Featuring Mr. Almond on piano, with Alana Dawes, bass, and Levy Lorenzo, percussion.

October 16-20, 23-27 at 8:30 pm, October 19, 20, 26 & 27 at 11:00 PM $60 cover charge, $30 food & beverage minimum. 54 Below, 254 West 54th Street. (646) 476-3551

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