By Kevin Scott Hall
Don't Tell Mama – January 26, March 16
How refreshing it is to be reminded of why we do this art form called cabaret. Vickie Phillips, who for many years has made Don't Tell Mama—and other Sidney Myer-booked clubs before that—her performing home, brings joy and enthusiasm to her work as though she were doing it for the first time. Like a favorite aunt, she welcomes you to her party with a bubbly mix of stories, smart song choices, and a gleeful bit of mischief…and never less than one hundred percent commitment.
Ms. Phillips cut a striking figure as she began her recent show from the back of the intimate smaller room at the club, belting out Holly Near's "Don't Let the Singer Down." It served as both a welcome and an admonition; she'll do her thing, but she expects respect. Sporting a very red, short hairdo and a sturdy figure, Phillips used a lavalier microphone mounted at cheek level to a support wrapped around her neck. Purists may balk at such a choice, but it's clear she presents herself as a theatrical artist and it frees up her arms and hands, which added to her strong visual presence. Vocally, she gave Near's song more than it needed, but she was more relaxed as she began her second song.
That second song was "To Keep My Love Alive" (Rodgers & Hart), which she prefaced with the simple statement, "The first rule of cabaret is to reveal something about yourself." I don't think we were meant to believe she had offed her husbands, but the choice told us enough about Phillips's many tries at love—with abundant humor. She interpreted each verse so that each man became specific, not just a laundry list of comical deaths. Phillips also knows how to phrase to bring the most out of playful lyrics and rhymes.
She further displayed her comic chops with two Tom Lehrer songs, "Pollution" and "The Irish Ballad." The latter is a song about how an Irish lass does in her family members; while it may be thematically similar to the Rodgers and Hart piece, the choice reinforced the view that Phillips has a fun-loving, wicked side.
For all her comic deftness, however, she is also a capable dramatic actress. The monologue nature of Maltby and Shire's "Life Story"—an older woman reflecting on her post-divorce life: the sacrifices made to raise her child, and her yearning for meaningful work—was the perfect showcase for Phillips. As each verse ended with "I'm not complaining," we felt her bitterness, even if there was defiance in the tone. At one point, she fumbled a lyric but stayed in character, the inability to speak becoming part of the character's frustration. Another gem was the weaving together of "My Childhood" (Jacques Brel, Eric Blau), "Come Away Melinda" (Fran Minkoff, Fred Hellerman), and "In My Own Lifetime" (Harnick & Bock): different eras and styles, but together a powerful anti-war cry. By the time she began the third song with "In my own lifetime, I want to see the fighting cease," audience members could be seen dabbing their eyes with their cocktail napkins.
Throughout, we felt we knew Phillips, even though she never really told us much about herself—exactly the way it should be done. Sometimes she chatted about previous shows, her love of old movies, or an anecdote about a song. Her enthusiasm was contagious.
On this night, she worked for the first time with Tracy Stark as musical director. Stark, who has a love of rock and rhythm & blues, and harkens from the pop singer-songwriter world, would not seem the obvious choice for this material. However, the diversity of style and sensibilities and the two women's being of different generations combined to create a memorable pairing. Stark harmonized beautifully with Phillips, and the care she took with each arrangement and her concentration on the singer's every nuance marked her—if there were still any doubt—as one of the best in the business. The capper to both of their work was the "A to Z" movie medley—that's right, 26 songs, delivered in ten minutes. They were clearly having a ball with it, and so were we.
Phillips's pitch can be unsteady when she hits those high notes. Lowering the keys slightly on a few songs would probably solve the problem. Regardless of that, Phillips sails through with love, strength, intelligence, and commitment to her art. It is evident that she performs for the love of it, and will continue to do so. We could all learn a few lessons from her.