November 30, 2011
Carol O’Shaughnessy has been called “The First Lady of Boston Cabaret” for over three decades, and with good reason. At her recent Scullers outing, where she celebrated her 69th birthday (and looking at least 25 years younger), she proved she has earned that moniker many times over. O’Shaughnessy has the uncanny ability to have you doubled over with laughter one minute and wiping away tears the next. A natural comedienne, she sometimes appeared to have forgotten she was there to sing, leaping from one hilarious story to another, chatting with the audience, and poking fun at her silky mocha brown outfit (“I look like milk chocolate going out for a walk”). Going right back into the music without skipping a beat, you realized she’d never lost track, and has always been in full control. In fact, that is the beauty of O’Shaughnessy’s shows.
The program was a delightful mixture of her standard repertoire and new pieces, with an emphasis on the latter, making this one of her most interesting shows.
From her sassy opener, “A Change in the Weather”—a welcome jazzy newcomer to her program—to her rousing, over-the-top “Peter Pan Medley”—an O’Shaughnessy staple that had the crowd flying, crowing out load, and never growing up—she kept the show bouncy and upbeat. With the help of the Tom LaMark quintet, which he made sound like an orchestra, O’Shaughnessy swung her way through “That’s Life” (Dean Kay/Kelly Gordon), settling into a solid groove carved deep by LaMark’s group, and brought it home with a gusto that would do Ol’ Blue Eyes proud.
As if she isn’t already a character herself, her show wouldn’t be complete without at least one of her stock characters, and she didn’t disappoint here. While her Mama Sgugliachi is a perennial crowd-pleaser (she transforms herself before the audience from good-time cabaret gal to bawdy Italian-American grandma before you can say “O Solo Mio”), the bit becomes a little predictable when you’ve seen it 20-30 times, as I have. So, it was even more of a treat to have her bring on, for a long overdue appearance, Dame Appoggiatura Fetuccini-Smythe, the Italian-Australian opera diva, who is prone to uncontrolled displays of coloratura and too many martinis. Dame’s one aria displayed an impressive trained soprano that caught the audience gleefully off guard. O’Shaughnessy should consider taking her soprano, if not the Dame herself, out more often, as it added further spice and depth to her show.
O’Shaughnessy is one of a very small cadre of cabaret performers brave enough to take requests, which she did not once, not twice, but thrice, ably abetted by her equally brave and talented musicians. While she faked her way through “Just One of Those Things” (with clever lyrics made up on the spot), she managed to belt out a solid “Big Spender” (Cy Coleman/Dorothy Fields) with such sass and pizzazz that I wondered if the genuine request was a plant. But the highlight among the requests was “Fifty Percent” (Billy Goldenberg/Alan & Marilyn Bergman), which she almost declined, but, fortunately for the audience, thought better of it. Explaining that after working in an assisted living facility for the past eight years, she has seen the other side of the song: the husband who can’t leave his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife, but goes dancing once a week with another woman. O’Shaughnessy then segued seamlessly into a quiet, introspective delivery of the song that proved the power of small.
In fact, it was O’Shaughnessy’s quiet moments that allowed her to utilize her lovely mix of chest and head voice to great effect, as she did with her closing number, “Sometime Soon” (Judy Barron/Jeff Harris), which left the final notes shimmering in the air well after she was done.
O’Shaughnessy and LaMark have been a team for the better part of a decade, and it is a musical marriage made in heaven. His arrangement for her pairing “The Way I See It “(Cy Coleman/Barbara Fried)/“Pure Imagination” (Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley) began softly with solo piano escalating to the quintet’s driving pulse behind the singer’s full-throated bel canto finish that wrung every bit of beckoning joy out of Bricusse’s lyric.
Honors go to John Repucci on bass, Jim Gwin on drums and Mike Monoghan on reeds, with special attention to Dave Burdett’s deft trumpet and flugelhorn backup, especially on “That Old Feeling” (Lew Brown/Sammy Fain), where he created a feather pillow mood to cushion O’Shaughnessy’s wistful musing, evoking the wee hours of a smoky bar with but three lingering patrons. O’Shaughnessy is an old school entertainer, with a capital “E”, who does it all. She swings, belts, renders a tender ballad, tells a funny story, jokes with the band, flirts with the audience (or is it the other way around?), and makes sure everyone is having a good time, including herself. Most of all, she connects, projecting joy, sorrow and hilarity with equal conviction. If that isn’t entertainment, I don’t know what is.