Wednesday, October 17, 2018

The Composers Showcase...A Variety of Originals

Last week I attended a recurring musical event that has great word of mouth around town. Run by composer Keith Thompson of PK Entertainment, "The Composer's Showcase" is the work of several composers, musicians and singers presenting their original work about once a month at Myron's Cabaret Jazz at the Smith Center.

The show first began with a group of musical directors and composers working and living in Las Vegas who wanted to get together and showcase their own new music. That was 12 years ago and it's still going strong. Most are established composers and artists with an occasional up and comer in the mix. This is not an open mic style show but a planned and rehearsed production of a variety of original music.

Keith Thompson, Photo by Ira Kuzma
Composer Keith Thompson  not only produces the event but is also the emcee. Keith opened last week's show with a lighthearted song that set the tone for a  night of congenial entertainment. The other half of PK Entertainment, Philip Fortenberry joined some of the acts on piano, appearing and disappearing from the stage (like a brilliant musical ghost).

After Keith was Dr. Mark Wherry who sang with some of his students from College of Southern Nevada. The song was called Financially Made and was a humorous reflection on the rigors of financial aid. His students sounded great and had fun attitude and character in their performance. Next up was Jordan Sanders who sang her original son Man in the Moon while playing guitar. Jordan is a student at Las Vegas Academy and her voice is enchanting. 

Jeff Leibow sat down at the piano and shared a meaningful song he wrote about the loss of a baby six years ago called Lost Soul. It was sorrowful and comforting at the same time because it had an uplifting message about lost souls ultimately finding their way home. It takes a lot for a performer to share something so personal and I think that means a lot to an audience. It did to me.

After him
one of my favorite composers Michelle Johnson sang a song she wrote on a bus while touring many years ago about a dead end relationship...I Don't Make Your Heart Sing. Spellbinding as always, I enjoy when Michelle shares some of her original music (like she did at her most recent show at Myron's this past summer). Michelle then had a surprise for us all and introduced Lousie Goffin who performed one of her songs, The Last Time I Saw my Sister, from her upcoming album "All These Hellos." 


Dennis Blair inspired chuckles with his comedic song It's Not A Good Idea, about a man who obviously does not think he should marry his girlfriend! This performance featured Joey Singer on piano. Although touted as a comedian, Dennis is also an excellent singer, as proven on his most recent album Hapless Romantic. 

A dynamic performance of his song Explode by Kyle Khou, was a hit with the crowd as well.  Kyle was an American Idol finalist and has an album out titled "No Boxes." Focusing on the Halloween month that is October, Rylan Leo Helmuth debuted what I'll refer to as a spooky horror opera style song that I don't recall the name of but involved powerfully talented singers and a string section which added a haunting depth. I get scared easily so I had to busy myself with my Bento Box and cocktail, (Myron's serves food and drinks during shows). 

Then Matt Dorman introduced Betsy Holms who sang Empty House, a beautifully done version of a classic country song reminiscent of Tammy Wynette. Following her was Halsey Harkins who sat down at the piano and shared her song Technicolor Shades; which she said came to her after seeing someone desperately intoxicated, and the melancholy surrounding that moment.

One of my favorites of the night was a song by Keith Thompson that he said he wrote years ago when going through an especially self reflective time. It's called I Am The Song, about meaning in life and spreading light. Philip Fortenberry was on piano and David Warner on what they referred to as a harp cello. I mentioned to Keith after the show how touching his song was and he said, "Thank you that was hard for me to do. I'm usually joking around and this song shows a more serious side of me."
Elijah Rock with Uli Geissendoerfer  Photo by PK Entertainment
Closing the show was Elijah Rock.  It was his first appearance at this event and he was rocking the white tux style jacket with black trim exceptionally well, not to mention his voice and vocal style! Accompanied by Uli Geissendoerfer he sang Matters of the Heart then New York in the Springtime.  Elijah's new album is "Gershwin for My Soul." Elijah's motto, "Keeping Thine Eyes to the Future and Thy Ears to the Past," fits him well. 

I absolutely loved this production. With it's eclectic style, congenial feel and high caliber performances, "The Composer's Showcase" makes its own kind of magic.

October 10 "The Composers Showcase", Dennis Blair, Matt Dorman, Uli Geissendoerfer, Louise Goffin, Halsey Harkins, Rylan Leo Helmuth, Marisa Johnson, Michelle Johnson, Kyle Khou, Jeff Leibow, Elijah Rock, Jordan Sanders, Ketih Thompson, Mark Wherry. The performers were Thomas Calvin, Sam Holder, Betsy Holms, Jenelle Magbutay, Gret Menzies, Karsten Pudwill, Coco Lane Rigbye, Jolana Sampson, Ashley Stone, Rachel Tyler. The show included some performers and musicians not mentioned here. 

"The Composer's Showcase" is now a Nevada nonprofit. 








Monday, October 8, 2018

Comedy Cellar Continued

The Comedy Cellar Las Vegas opened about six months ago and has been finding its footing ever since.  I like CCLV because they capture the spirit, energy and spontaneous nature of the original Comedy Cellar New York with their intimate venue, constant action, diverse talent and occasional surprises.

Saturday night the audience was treated to one of those surprises. Before I get to that I want to compliment the nightly emcee, Mark Cohen who by now seems very much at home here. This was my third visit to the club and Mark opened the show with his usual audience riffing which includes banter with some of the Las Vegas locals who frequent the Comedy Cellar as well as tourists; who always provide ripe material for what they refer to in the comedy business as crowd work. Mark is funny and high energy without appearing to be trying too hard. 

Matteo, Leo, Traci, Rocky, Mark - Photo from @traciskene

Mark had a special surprise for us last night. Just a comedian stopping by for a short set who turned out to be comedy legend Ray Romano!  Sporting a mustache for his current role in the TV Series Get Shorty, he mentioned he enjoyed being at the Comedy Cellar Las Vegas since he had actually gotten his start at the Comedy Cellar in New York about 25 years ago. Ray wondered about the need for wake up calls in Vegas, (considering nobody ever goes to bed), bemoaned the effects of aging on the sex life with a particularly funny reference to current events, as well as some improvisation about needing more doctors as friends at his age, since he always seems to need one anyway. They don't allow recording at the Comedy Cellar so I have no photos of his set...I actually like that rule. Keeps things real time.

Ray Romano was actually the second comedian to perform that night. First up was Rocky Dale Davis, a funny southerner who claims he's 25, but looks much older, or so he says. He performed before Ray so was the only comic that didn't have to follow a legend in the line-up. That's probably why he seemed so relaxed. Or maybe it's just the Southern accent. 

Next up was Leo Flowers, who is really not that ambitious.  I'm not insulting him, just repeating his catchphrase and the basis of his act.  He also reminds women they don't want a man who is too ambitious, and his reasons are funny but also ring true. Leo also talks about how his mother came to the U.S. illegally from Belize. That was a brave statement, or joke, not sure which one, but still courageous material to present in today's political climate. I liked Leo, but he was not as relaxed as Rocky...probably because he had to follow Ray Romano!

Following Leo was Traci Skene, who talks about the ups and downs of being 53. Yes, it's true, she admitted her actual age. Another brave comic! There are quite a few hilarious "shares" here, as she explains the pitfalls but also the advantages, such as the fact that a woman over 50 is less likely to be abducted by a serial killer! She also talks about how nobody over 40 wants to "make love all night long" like in the love songs, (more like about 30 minutes).  Traci has great material and excellent segues from bit to bit, and although not as mainstream famous as Ray Romano, every bit a pro and has been for a long time.

Matteo Lane closed out the night. I saw him earlier this year at Comedy Cellar. He's a delight. Matteo is funny, snide but also upbeat, and super gay in the best possible way. He talks about the fact that his brother is also gay and how that is like a "second Vietnam" to their father. Aww, I felt kind of bad laughing about that one, but I did. He talks about how he watches Ghost Hunters but wonders why they have never in 16 seasons caught even one ghost! I like Matteo as a show closer because his high energy pumps up the crowd as we all spill out of the club and into the casino.


Sunday, July 22, 2018

We Do: A Chester Bennington Documentary

What happens to the millions of fans who are left behind when a rock star suddenly dies? About one year ago on July 20, 2017 Chester Bennington, who was lead singer of the internationally renowned band Linkin Park, committed suicide. 

Matthew Vinaja was one of the fans affected by Chester's death. In the intro to his documentary, We Do: A Chester Bennington Documentary, he talks about how after finding out about Chester's suicide he listened constantly to his music and drove himself crazy thinking about it. Matthew said what helped him most was talking to other fans. "An idea then came to me. I decided to make a documentary. Not about Linkin Park, or even about Chester Bennington, but about the fans." Matthew chose five of Chester's fans who were brave enough to share their stories of the effect his death has had on them. 

I have never followed Linkin Park, and could only ever name one or two of their songs, but after watching this documentary I understand their music so much better that I am now also a fan.

We Do: A Chester Bennington Documentary

The five fans featured in We Do are Andy Cool, Mary Winning, Kristine Escobedo, Phil Donney, and Adrienne McQueen, (who is also Executive Producer). In it they talk about what it was like to find out about the tragic suicide of a musician that they loved, felt close to and whose lyrics got them through some of their life's darkest times. "I screamed like I've never heard myself scream," says Adrienne, "The first thing I thought was this has to be a hoax," said Phil. "I just kept thinking the real news will come out soon," added Andy.

About the days that followed and it sunk in that Chester was gone Phil had this to say, "There's a lot of different factors that go into not only mourning a celebrity but mourning someone whose committed suicide so there's that anger and resentment to it." Adrienne added, "I felt really sick. I couldn't really speak to a lot of people, especially people who didn't really understand me." Mary couldn't really work so she browsed the internet trying to figure out how and why he could do it. Andy pissed off friends because he was all over the place emotionally. "It felt like we were all sort of thrown into this macro grieving process together," added Phil.

In We Do, the fans also talk about how it felt to listen to Linkin Park's music after losing Chester.
Grieving fans from We Do: A Chester Bennington Documentary

A variety of memorials followed Chester's death. Each of the five fans in the documentary attended at least one of them, some of them two or three. "I attended one in Berlin, my hometown." Mary said. Andy helped organize and performed at the one in L.A. and in Las Vegas. Adrienne attended three, including the one in Las Vegas at Club Tattoo, where she also performed. (I also attended the one in Las Vegas. Adrienne is a long time friend of mine, and I had never before seen her this devastated by the loss of an artist, so I showed up to support her.)

To me, the most meaningful part of We Do is when the fans talk about how much the LP Family means to them.  What started out as random Linkin Park fans turning to each other for comfort became a source for meaningful friendships and an ad hoc support group for those mourning the loss of the band's front man. "I'm very happy they're out there and I've met them and they understand, says Adrienne.  Kristine adds "Without this community I think I'd be lost. When I was down they brought me right back up." 

In the documentary the fans also share their advice for others on how to handle the loss of a favorite musician or artist, and speak about what helped them get through theirs.

Near the end of We Do, Matthew sums it up with this message, "Chester told us the one thing that can't be defeated is love. We have to make him proud by continuing supporting each other, loving each other and inspiring each other. We're all in this together."

We Do: A Chester Bennington Documentary Link below

https://vimeo.com/2807837 We Do: A Chester Bennington Documentary


Copyright Anna Wendt 2018  

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Michelle Johnson's Salute to the Great Singer-Songwriters

Michelle Johnson performed her "Salute to the Great Singer-Songwriters" last Friday night at Myron's Cabaret Jazz at The Smith Center.

I've known Michelle for a few years now. We met when I first wrote about her as part of an ensemble cast in "Divorce Party" at Bally's. She is multi-talented and always involved in a lot of different things, but I've noticed recently she seems to have zeroed in on singing as her main focus. 


After kicking off the show and opening song, This Is It by Kenny Loggins, Michelle dealt with a wardrobe malfunction by joking about it and moving on.

She then went on to talk about some of the singer-songwriters that inspired her from a young age like James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, and Carole King. This was followed by her especially poignant version of Both Sides Now

Michelle shared that she also has written a lot of her own songs. Recently, after playing a few for Grammy Award Winning Producer Kamau Kenyatta he encouraged her to record them, and so they are now working on an album of her originals. She then sat down at the piano to play and sing one of these songs. It was a touching ballad about being "All In."


Michelle Johnson Myron's Cabaret Jazz photo by Ira Kuzma

During the show she also sang one of my favorite Joni Mitchell numbers Big Yellow Taxi, while weaving in a little scat here and there. I was pleased Michelle also included Tracy Chapman, who is someone I personally never hear enough of. The song was Fast Car, which we all know is not really a song about a car but about getting out of a rut and changing the direction of one's future.

One of the highlights of the show and most enjoyable renditions of a song I've ever heard was Serve Somebody by Bob Dylan. Michelle did this as a what I can only describe as a disco gospel style, and with the band and backup singers, it was the best blend of all of the onstage talent of the night!

Michelle has worked with many well known singer-songwriters over the years. Near the end of the show she talked about one time in particular when she sang Hey Jude at the Hollywood Bowl as part of an All Star fundraiser with none other than Paul McCartney. She told this story intermittently while singing the song. It all built up to a beautiful climax and the audience seemed to love it, as did I.  

Michelle Johnson's next show, "Tapestry Unraveled," which is a tribute to Carole King will be back at Myron's Cabaret Jazz on November 18, 2018

Michelle Johnson's Tribute to Singer-Songwriters
Musical Director Jeff Neiman
Singers Gret Menzies Gonzalez, 
Jassen Allen, Jolana Sampson-Adamson
Band Pablo Gadda, Walter Jones, Don Meoli

 

Monday, July 2, 2018

The Cocktail Cabaret Celebrates 100th Performance

I've been a fan of "The Cocktail Cabaret" since it opened last winter. The show is cabaret style with a touch of modern flair and has a start time of 6pm, which makes it the perfect kick off to an evening out in Las Vegas.

Before the 100th performance celebration of the show Friday night I was chatting with Derek and Hailey, a couple from Kansas seated at our table with us. Hailey said to me "I told Derek I wanted to do something tonight we've never done, and we've never been to a cabaret show, so I chose this."

For those like Hailey who are not familiar, a cabaret show is one usually performed by an ensemble that involves song, dance and banter in an intimate venue. When talking before the show with host and performer Eric Jordan Young I asked what he likes most about performing in "The Cocktail Cabaret" and he said, "Actually the whole show in its entirety because many people don't know what cabaret style is, that it's audience interactive, and we get to show them that."

L to R Philip Fortenberry, Daniel Emmet, Niki Scalera, Keith Thompson, Maren Wade, Eric Jordan Young  Photo credit: Ross Kyker Photo

The show starts with a rousing performance of the original song "Cocktail Cabaret." Written by Keith Thompson, the song sets the tone and brands this show as its own unique production and much more than a night of cabaret style compositions of popular hits. After that Maren Wade slinks onstage and into her slow tempo version of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, followed by another original from Thompson, The Man at the Piano which is an interactive duet with Philip Fortenberry and Daniel Emmet (a current season contestant on "America's Got Talent").

The next highlight for me was the duet with Young and Emmet of Now or Never which becomes a bit competitive between the two, but don't worry it's all part of the act! By the time Niki Scalera lifts her bedazzled arm high to launch into her chilling version of Diamonds are Forever, the audience is fully engaged in this production for the remaining of the 19 songs and medleys; some even breaking into mid show spontaneous standing ovations. After one of Daniel Emmet's songs where he went back and forth between English and Italian lyrics, Hailey leaned over to me and said, "He just brought tears to my eyes."

By the time the show was nearing the end with a dynamic rendition of Raise Your Glass, our table of four was in high spirits. After exchanging contact information with our new friends, my husband and I headed out of the venue and on to the rest of the evening carrying with us the bubbly energy of "The Cocktail Cabaret."

"The Cocktail Cabaret" was created by the founders of PK Entertainment, Keith Thompson ("Jersey Boys," "The Composer's Showcase") and Philip Fortenberry, (award winning pianist with multiple Broadway credits). The band is Josh Jones, Don Meoli and Eric Tewalt. It runs about 70 minutes with no intermission in the 150 seat floating Cleopatra's Barge lounge at Caesars Palace. Wednesdays - Saturdays 6pm