Club Review: Steven Zumbo

September 18, 2022 | By | Add a Comment

If Dom DeLuise had decided to pursue a career in cabaret rather than in motion pictures, he could have done far worse than fashioning his performance after Steven Zumbo who recently presented a new show at Pangea. His was a perfect example of old school cabaret—a singer, a piano, and a stool, with a well-chosen collection of songs that were programmed in a subtly narrative order, and connected by smart, funny, and brief patter. The patter was delivered in a low-key, almost diffident manner that was, nonetheless, by turns hilarious and touching when it needed to be. Zumbo’s delivery of both lyrics and chat was so natural and spontaneous that at times I didn’t want to applaud at the end of a song, fearful that I would interrupt a conversation I didn’t want to end.  Music director Gerry Dieffenbach contributed inspired arrangements and his customary exemplary playing and vocal support, all in service to the singer’s individual style. 

Steven Zumbo

His opener, “When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It” (Mel Brooks, from The Producers) was delightful, leaving no doubt that Zumbo was a clown with a heart who was going to entertain royally.  Far from its diva-ish roots, “Some People” (Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, from Gypsy) became a simple, personal declaration about not staying home on a Saturday night; the transformation was fantastic. As with about 90 percent of 2022 cabaret shows, post-COVID life in New York is a background theme throughout the act,  but Zumbo made inspired choices in the songs that highlighted this element of his show. “What About Today?” (David Shire) could well have been written for our times rather than in the ’60s and used as the title track for Barbra Streisand’s first attempt at a “contemporary” album. 

Here and elsewhere, Zumbo’s relaxed, deceptively soft-spoken power reminded the audience just what a good singer he is. Nothing was strained, nothing was pushed, but he got big when the song or the moment required it. Connie Francis’s “Where the Boys Are” (Neil Sedaka, Howard Greenfield) was done in Italian in tribute to his heritage and upbringing and it gave him the opportunity to alter the lyrics in humorously naughty ways for those who understood it. The Kermit the Frog classic, “Being Green” (Joe Raposo), has rarely been more sweetly delivered. It led to a song that showed the downside of “being green” as a child, “Last One Picked” (Dick Gallagher, Mark Waldrop, from Whoop Dee Doo), and then jumped ahead a few years from high school angst to touch on first love and romance. “It Was Me” (Gilbert Becaud, Maurice Vidalin, English lyrics by Norman Gimbel) was breathtaking, literally as I imagined the audience holding theirs so there would be no chance of shattering the gossamer web that the singer wove. 

Zumbo’s delivery of Cole Porter’s “At Long Last Love” (complete with the rarely done verse) was delightful; the crisp, knowing delivery of the classic lyrics made them shine. Thanks to an extraordinary arrangement by Dieffenbach and a stunning resetting of the lyrics of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (John Lennon, Paul McCartney) it became a small but mighty plea for LGBT equality in marriage and in life. Switching gears fast enough to cause the most entertaining whiplash imaginable, he then explored Stephen Sondheim’s “Can That Boy Fox Trot” and solidified a thought I had found growing since the beginning of the show. Zumbo’s personal phrasing and commitment to lyrics and attention to detail places him in the rarified company of Julie Wilson and Mabel Mercer. This is the way these songs were meant to be heard. 

He milked every laugh from Pam Petersen’s hilarious parody lyrics to “Memory” (Andrew Lloyd Webber, Trevor Nunn, from Cats). His beautiful “Send in the Clowns” (Stephen Sondheim, from A Little Night Music) was the one moment in the set which could have benefited from a slightly bigger and more emotional attack. The only other song that disturbed the wonderfully sustained flow of the evening was an awkwardly rock-ish take on Laura Nyro’s “Save the Country” that never really jelled. Zumbo’s introduction to “Come Down from the Tree” (Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens, from Once on This Island), imagining the song as a message to his children and grandchildren, imbued the already wonderful piece with a special emotional resonance. That emotion grew and deepened with Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” whose contemplation of the passage of time seemed as directed to Zumbo’s own life as it was to his kids, putting the song on a level I had never considered before.  

Murray Grand’s “Too Old to Die Young” was a perfect and laugh-filled climax to this look at how quickly years go by. The show wrapped up with a love song to New York City, which seemed almost inevitable after the stories and songs we had heard for the last hour. A dynamic, energetic take on Cole Porter’s “I Happen to Like New York” was made even more special by the inclusion of an echo of Kander & Ebb’s “New York, New York.” An encore of Sondheim’s “With So Little to Be Sure Of” (from  Anyone Can Whistle) was a beautifully realized end to the reflections on the post-COVID state of affairs and a memorable farewell from the singer.  

I opened the review with a mention of Dom DeLuise.  For context, I should say that I am a big fan of DeLuise, just as I am now a big fan of Steven Zumbo. 

***

Presented at Pangea on September 10.

Category: News / Reviews / Commentary, Reviews

About the Author ()

Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”

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