Ah-Ah-Ah … Ah-FWHOOO!
Did we hear that right? One audience member sneezes at a concert and it sounds like half the house blesses him? Gee, aren’t we chummy tonight? (Not to mention well-mannered.)
Group “gesundheits” do fit the spirit of The Composers Showcase, the jumpin’ late-night jam at The Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz. Stuffy vibes certainly don’t jibe with a recent night’s Gershwin-esque kickoff tune, “Don’t Tell Your Wife She’s Got a Big Butt Unless You Wanna Meet Your Maker Soon.”
Catchy, sure, but you wonder what the spouse of Mark Wherry, the singer/songwriter (and vivid lyricist) at the piano, is thinking at a close-to-the-stage table. She’s thoroughly poker-faced. Probably a good sport, we’re guessing.
“For a while [host Keith Thompson] would introduce me as ‘the strange little man,’” says Wherry, by day a College of Southern Nevada vocal instructor. “I’ve written some raunchier stuff, like ‘The White Trash Girls at Wal-Mart Turn Me On.’”
Sadly, we are not treated to that. After “Butt,” Wherry sits his own right down, and The Composers Showcase is off and running amid the schmoozing and (light) boozing. Singer after singer and musician after musician interpret shiny new works by composer after composer in a Forrest-Gump-box-of-chocolates format.
(Right: Ya never know what’cha gonna git.)
Musical theater tunes dominate the array of goodies, but dig the flavorful cross-section: a folk song here, a novelty tune there, sprinkled with finger-snappy jazz, a pinch of pop, a Great American Songbook-style barn-burner, a dash of classical, even a spiritually minded soother, or … ah, hell, just name a genre, wait a couple of minutes, and your ears will get their candy.
Approving nods, appreciative applause, back slaps, handshakes and knowing winks bounce around the classy-cozy room and between some show-biz frat brothers—that’s Clint Holmes smiling at a stage-side table, with Broadway writer Bill Russell seated nearby, Jersey Boy Rob Marnell (“Bob Gaudio”) by the door and Phat Packer Randal Keith is around here somewhere.
Add in a party sampler of performers—including singer/songwriter Jamie Hosmer, KÀ musical director Richard Oberacker, conductor/pianist Christopher Lash and singer Joey DeBenedetto—and the party’s on.
Don’t forget Thompson, your perpetually tickled-pink party-giver/host. Kibbitzing with the crowd, he mock-protests how people often mishear a lyric in his tune, “Waiting at the Fountain of Love,” that describes what people traditionally toss into the water sprays.
“I have to keep telling people: “It’s throwing ‘pennies’—not ‘panties!’”
But seriously, folks.
“My motivation is to let people know about original music that people in Las Vegas are writing, and at New York and L.A. levels,” says Thompson, the paterfamilias of The Composers Showcase, which hits the stage again on December 4. “We’ve got some of the greatest talent in the world in this town.”
Vegas credentials aren’t strictly required—out-of-town talents pass through, too—but the 7-year-old Showcase is a homegrown hootenanny, co-founded by Strip musical directors Michael Brennan (Le Rêve) and Thompson (Jersey Boys). “I’m such a fan of these people, and it’s such a cool thing to shine a spotlight on other people,” says Thompson, who assumed sole leadership of the Showcase after Brennan pursued other interests.
“It used to be almost all show-biz people, because it was really underground, a word of mouth thing,” says Wherry, frequently the leadoff hitter of the Showcase, which has a history of mobility. Initially anchored at the former Suede restaurant, and later at Creative Studios and Garfield’s restaurant, it landed in 2007 at the Liberace Museum’s cabaret room, where it hung out until the museum shuttered in 2010.
“When the museum closed, we were still running, and running strong—we had people stacked along the foyer at the museum,” Thompson says. “When it closed, we floated around. We didn’t want it on the Strip. It’s a labor of love, no money involved. We put all that talent out there for free, so supporting the gaming industry didn’t seem the right thing to do.”
Eventually, the Showcase popped up on the radar of Paul Beard, vice president and chief operating officer of The Smith Center. After attending the final edition at the museum, Beard suggested it would be a neat fit for Cabaret Jazz when The Smith Center debuted in 2012.
Charging an insanely affordable $20 a pop at its new marquee venue—the money goes to The Smith Center to cover technical and room expenses—the Showcase also found its loosey-goosey persona altered a bit. “Once, when it was at Suede, Vicki Van Tassel, who was in Mamma Mia, got up and said, ‘Wanna see my tassels?’” Wherry recalls. “It was a Christmas show. She showed them, and they had ‘Merry Christmas’ written on them in sequins. You’re not going to get that at The Smith Center.”
Tassel-type tradeoffs appear to have been worth it, as the venue upgrade has attracted more patrons beyond the show-biz clique. “Since it’s been at The Smith Center, it’s been more upscale, but [audiences are] equally receptive,” Wherry notes. “And more composers seem to want to be on it than when it was more underground. The quality of the material is really good.”
About a dozen composers contribute regularly, with more than 30 waiting their turn in lineups selected by Thompson, who points out that the Showcase is not an invitation to open-mic-night enthusiasts. “Those things are great, I’m so happy they’re there, but I’ve had people contact me who had expectations that they should just be able to walk in and get onstage. But our audience has come to expect a certain level of quality.”
Name performers provide that. Among those who have popped onstage: guitarist Esteban, Million Dollar Quartet’s Martin Kaye (who plays Jerry Lee Lewis), Frankie Moreno, Taylor Hicks, pop princes Debbie Gibson, vocalist Kristen Hertzenberg, pianist Philip Fortenberry and child phenom/America’s Got Talent contestant Anna Christine.
Lesser-known artists contribute just as strongly, some adding an esoteric flair.
“I was playing in Spamalot when I heard about the Showcase,” recalls Rebecca Ramsey, a violinist around town who has performed with the Las Vegas Philharmonic and with Celine Dion at Caesars Palace.
Specializing in composing New Age, nature-inspired music—one piece, titled, “Under a New Sun,” celebrates the arrival of the winter solstice—the accomplished musician harbored doubts over whether her artistry would align with the Showcase.
“They do a lot of Broadway type of music, but Keith heard it and said, ‘If you can scale it down, we’ll do it,’” Ramsey says. “It’s turned into a wonderful outlet for playing the music I compose. I’ll gather friends to play the music and talk to the audience about what I’ve written. It’s an opportunity you wouldn’t get any other way.”
Yet it is musical theater that gives Thompson his biggest bang. As Holmes was penning songs for Just Another Man, his autobiographical show, he’d seek the creative support of The Composers Showcase. “He’d ask me, ‘Did you understand it?’” Thompson says. “And he’d ask other writers. I found that fascinating.”
Back at Cabaret Jazz, as the show barrels on, the musical theater theme muscles into the mix. Unofficially, this particular Showcase is part-Jersey Boys jam. After Graham Fenton (“Frankie Valli”) takes a turn behind the drums to back co-star Rob Marnell on the latter’s amusing “Hippopotamus Mouth,” Jeff Leibow (“Nick Massi”), a cancer survivor, touches the audience with a tune about appreciating life.
Then comes the evening’s wittiest wallop, courtesy of special guest Bill Russell, composer of onetime Broadway musical Side Show. Currently retooling the Tony-nominated production at the La Jolla Playhouse, the songwriter calls up singers who croon the show’s title tune. Still more Russell-recruited entertainers climb onstage to tackle some songs from two other Russell productions—off-Broadway’s The Last Smoker in America and the in-progress Unexpected Joy—that enliven an already lively night.
Could anyone resist a delightful ditty called, “I Wanna Call You the C Word”? Chortles and giggles and applause prove otherwise.
“I love this night,” Keith tells the Showcase faithful. “This is so much fun.”
Too much fun, in fact, to ever sneeze at (but just in case—gesundheit!).
THE COMPOSERS SHOWCASE
10:30 p.m. Dec. 4, Cabaret Jazz at The Smith Center, $20, 749-2000, TheSmithCenter.com.