By Kevin Scott Hall
"A Wolk On The Wild Side"
The Duplex – October 21, November 25, December 9, 17, February 17
The small Duplex stage burst into bubble gum fun as soon as Amy Wolk and her cohorts took to it in her recent candy-coated cabaret confection, "A Wolk on the Wilde Side." Wolk and musical director Steven Ray Watkins created a carnival parade from a program of mostly modern pop songs, giving them surprising arrangements and an impressive theatricality that made them often outshine their original versions.
With a voice slightly resembling a softer Cyndi Lauper and a comedic presence that recalls Madeline Kahn, Wolk confidently steered the show, although her team of a half dozen men (three backup singers and three musicians) threatened to steal the show with their razzle-dazzle talent. They never did, although her colorful, proudly gay backup boys could have their own spin-off: Stefan Basti, Jack Herholdt, and Thomas Marcus put Glee to shame with their splendid dance moves, note-perfect harmonies, and hilarious facial expressions. There was great chemistry between Wolk and her boys, whom she introduced as friends. Easy to believe.
Odd pairings of songs well executed added to the delight for the audience. Wolk and company started the show with a high-energy "Once in Love with Amy" (Frank Loesser) interwoven with the Ke$ha song "Blow" (Kesha Sebert, Klas Åhlund, Lukasz Gottwald, Allan Grigg, Benjamin Levin, Max Martin). Somehow it not only worked, but soared. That was followed by "Cherish" (Madonna, Patrick Leonard), which was even better. The Material Girl would have applauded their loving, joyous rendition, which became a cabaret moment to, well, cherish and remember. Other mash-ups included "Wives and Lovers" (Bacharach & David) with "Just a Girl" (Gwen Stefani, Tom Dumont); "She Works Hard for the Money" (Donna Summer, Michael Omartian) with "Working for a Living" (Huey Lewis, Chris Hayes); and "The Candy Man" (Leslie Bricusse, Anthony Newley) with "Candyman" (Christina Aguilera, Linda Perry). All were inspired and meticulously staged.
In a night filled with laughter, Wolk's funniest bit was when she donned a pair of half-moon glasses, picked up a pointer, and confessed to being an accredited high school English teacher. (The reaction she got from the audience the night I attended got the biggest laugh of the evening.) This led into a Grammar Medley, in which she and the boys sang bits of over a dozen pop and theatre songs. She would stop the song at the offending lyric and scold the lyricist and offer the correct grammar. The crowd bellowed with laughter.
Like a commercial message, at a few points in the show, Wolk did a verse of "That's My Dad!" (William TN Hall, Amy Wolk), a ditty about her father's being a gynecologist. Who knew there were so many words for "vagina" or so many possible ailments in that vicinity?
What elevated this show to greatness, though, was the honesty and heart at its core. Life can't be a candy-colored carnival all the time, and to be fully satisfying, neither can entertainment. Wolk was able to go right for the heartstrings by taking a solo spot for Jackson Browne's "Running on Empty." She showed the fragility and near-despair that can come with chasing one's dreams. As counterpoint, toward the end of the show she offered the anthem "I'm Gonna Be Strong" (Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil), a fitting declaration of determination for any artist.
After all the visual and aural treats offered, Wolk's closing with "Let it Be" (Lennon & McCartney) and Billy Joel's "Summer, Highland Falls" seemed almost a letdown, although she remained emotionally true to the material. And something about great cabaret singers (like Wolk) is this: they make you hear a lyric clearly and as if for the first time. More than once during the show, I thought to myself, "Oh, is that what that lyric is? And is that what it means?" It was often a song I'd heard dozens of times on the radio.
In addition to Watkins on piano (he's so perfect for this material), Tim Lykins joined on drums and Dan Fabricatore on electric bass. Special mention must be given to Kikau Alvaro's choreography—I have rarely seen such an effectively staged production in such a confined space. And for all of this, director Lennie Watts earns more well-deserved bouquets. I've seen many fine Watts/Watkins collaborations in the past, but, for my money, this one was the most thoroughly successful on all levels—and there were so many levels. Next time she's around, take a "wolk" on the wild side. It's one trip you won't forget.