Steven Zumbo

July 3, 2018 | By

“You know, we eschew themes,” Steven Zumbo announced early in his recent show at Don’t Tell Mama, a two-night engagement directed by Helen Baldassare. (He could have added that show titles would also be shunned—he dispensed with that convention as well.)

The theme-free policy was fine by Zumbo’s enthusiastic audience, and fine by me, too. While it’s more common than not to build a cabaret show around a particular person, place, or thing, sometimes it’s enjoyable just to sit back and listen to a collection of songs with no particular relation to one another, other than the singer’s desire to perform them. A non-themed show can make for all manner of interesting surprises—and surprises (good ones, that is) can enliven a song list. A theme-free set will not necessarily lack cohesion. It all depends on how the material is ordered and how the seams are stitched. If the show turns out to be a crazy quilt, so be it. What better tonic sometimes than a dash of craziness?

Zumbo’s song list was certainly eclectic, with titles from songwriters ranging from Rodgers and Hart to John Denver, from Kander and Ebb to Bob Dylan. A spirit of laid-back merriment pervaded the evening, with plenty of good-silly-fun songs, including his opener, “I Regret Everything” (Bill Burnett, Peggy Sarlin) and Francesca Blumenthal’s “Buffalo, City of Dreams.” But he also gave us quiet, poignant moments, such as a tenderly performed “Misty” (Errol Garner, Johnny Burke) and a comforting, hopeful “It Gets Better” (George Winters). His talent for moving back and forth easily between the goofy and the sincere was evident.

His vocals are warm and easy on the ears. He delivers few if any vocal pyrochnics or embellishments on melody lines, yet for the most part he’s able to put his own stamp on the songs he sings. (One notable exception: his garden-variety take on Denver’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”) The important thing is that he connects so effortlessly with the audience. He comes across as a likable guy—the kind of fellow you’d like to have a beer with while kibitzing about show tunes.

Zumbo explained that in previous shows he’d featured a segment promoting “ERQS” (“Equal Rights for Questionable Songs”). Past questionables have included “Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves” and “Knock Three Times.” At this new show, the featured number was a rousing rendition of Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich’s “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” in which the audience happily participated.

Another segment featured a pair of Broadway titles written for tough, no-nonsense female characters: “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” (Warren Casey, Jim Jacobs), sung by Betty Rizzo in Grease, and  “Can That Boy Foxtrot!” (Stephen Sondheim), to have been sung by Carlotta Campion in, but cut from, Follies. Zumbo had considerable fun teasing the audience with the latter song’s euphemistic use of the word “foxtrot.”

In addition to serving as musical director and pianist, Gerry Dieffenbach added his singing talent to some numbers, providing appealing harmonies. His arrangement for Rodgers and Hart’s “Wait Till You See Her” was ambitious and bold, and he found an ingenious way to bundle Cole Porter’s “I Happen to Like New York” with Kander and Ebb’s “New York, New York.”

Don’t Tell Mama  –  June 28, 29

Category: Reviews

About the Author ()

Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in and, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

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