Monday, June 21, 2010

Wholly the Some of its Parts

Wholly the Some of its Parts

By Tom Wachunas

Expectations and assumptions are fragile, tenuous things, and easily subjected to shattering. Take, for example, the word ‘diva.’ Rooted in the Italian/Latin term for goddess, in the music world it generally connotes, variously, a prima donna, an operatic personality, or an eminently accomplished singer.

The recent show by the Canton Cabaret Dinner Theatre at Tozzi’s On 12th was billed as “Divine Divas” (something of a redundancy there, but that’s certainly the least of its problems). The question is whether the term referred to the original women who made the hits (from the 60s, 70s, and 80s) performed in the show, or the women who covered them here. If the latter, then one might fairly expect an evening of electrifying, stellar vocal performances. Unfortunately, too often that wasn’t the case.

Abby Knowles, Me’ Na, and Terry Everett, accompanied by the Steve Dallas Trio, offered a lengthy program of homogenized pop, soul, and soft rock tunes. All were big hits in their day, while just a handful could rightfully be called timeless (like Your Song, Fire and Rain, Natural Woman). I say ‘homogenized’ because one of the more cloying weaknesses of the show was that many of the vocal performances were tarnished with a patina of generic-sounding karaoke kitsch. And at times the evening evoked those classic Bill Murray parodies of night club acts on Saturday Night Live, which I’m sure was not the intent here.

The fault, interestingly enough, was certainly not in the singers as technicians. Each displayed distinctly unique, professional vocal qualities. The problem was more in the subtle realm of interpretive skills – the ability to compellingly paint emotional color and draw us in to the lyrical message in a convincing manner, befitting the greatness of the song. It is an area of performance that, when mastered, separates good singers from truly remarkable ones.

Both Knowles and Everett are engaging, even charismatic performers, to be sure. Knowles in particular displayed admirable humor and grace under pressure as she weathered a storm of technical problems with her microphone in the first half of the evening. Each of them had their best, most believable moments in the second half: Knowles with a moving and sincere performance of “The Way We Were,” and Everett with a soaring rendition of “Blue Bayou,” which made excellent use of her distinctive vibrato. Still, they delivered many of their songs with a casual sameness of spirit that was more formulaic and cute than magical. I was left thinking that perhaps this genre of music is not their forte. Just when you anticipated that they would make a word or phrase really fly, or for that matter linger long and sweet, they often clipped the moment like pruning a rose bush in bloom.

Me’ Na, on the other hand, knew exactly how to let us smell the roses throughout the evening. She’s marvelously adept at communicating the essence of a song, getting inside it with a commanding sense of when to forcefully muscle a phrase and when to gently massage it.

The Steve Dallas Trio (Dallas on keyboard, Martin Nielsen on bass, Jim Howell on drums) provided an energetic backdrop that was for the most part remarkably tight and crisp. Dallas is an excellent pianist and arranger, though at moments here his lithe-fingered embellishments seemed overly-decorative and arbitrarily applied. Sometimes such indulgences had the effect, oddly enough, of diverting attention away from the singers and the song, bringing to mind the adage that less is more.

With some judicious tweaking both technically and artistically, I think there can be a bright future for this unique venue. The elegant room, which has a dance floor, is spacious, yet intimate and warm. The food is delectable (one of the best steaks I ever had). Lois DiGiacomo, founder of the Canton Cabaret Dinner Theatre, clearly has the heart and the drive for keeping the best of yesterday alive today, and should be congratulated for it. Here’s hoping that her ambitious and welcome vision continues to grow.

UPCOMING SHOWS: September 10, Memories of Motown / October 16, Sweetest Day Musical / additional info at or

Photo: “La Chanteuse Verte” by Edgar Degas, 1884

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