I Don’t Need a Map
Tom Rolla’s Gardeni, West Hollywood, CA, February 23, 2017
Reviewed by Elliot Zwiebach for Cabaret Scenes
Manda Kemp is one bad-ass singer. That’s how she wanted people to think about her when she was younger — not simply as “nice” or “sweet,” but just bad-ass — and she has certainly earned that sobriquet after her excellent performance in her first solo cabaret show.
Besides Kemp’s beautiful singing, the show was extremely well-written — in terms of patter and song selection — as it traced her life from her early years as a nice, sweet singer with Broadway ambitions to a brief period when she sang rock. That was followed by a 16-year period when she stopped singing altogether to pursue other options before deciding, a few months ago, to resume a creative pursuit she was clearly meant to follow.
It was a good decision, since Kemp is an amazing performer — not only for her crystal-clear mezzo voice, but also for her nuanced delivery and strong acting chops, which enable her to give distinctive meaning to each lyric line within each song with the smallest change in vocal delivery or a very tiny gesture. And her choice of songs was excellent, with such a smooth through-line from patter to music that the songs could easily have been written precisely for a show about her life.
With terrific support from Musical Director Mike Farrell on piano, the show flowed easily, starting with a pair of songs early on that expressed Kemp’s feelings about music: an absorbing take on “Listen to Your Heart” (Per Gessle/Mats Persson) that built from a whisper to a full-voiced aria; and “Everything Else” (Tom Kitt/Brian Yorkey, from Next to Normal), in a thoughtful, sincere reading about how singing relieved high-school peer pressures while adding pressures of its own.
She took a successful stab at rock with a couple of numbers from School of Rock, The Musical: a big, powerful performance of “When I Climb to the Top of Mount Rock” that demonstrated her full vocal range; and a passionate, believable take on the rangy “Where Did the Rock Go?” (both Andrew Lloyd Webber/Glenn Slater).
She illustrated falling in love and getting married with a bilingual “C’est si bon” (Henri Betti/Jerry Seelen/Andre Hornez), in which she used her strong pipes to give the song more color than it usually has. She followed with the bouncy, delightfully engaging “In the Name of Love” (Cy Coleman/A. E. Hotchner, from Welcome to the Club) to signal her divorce.
She used several Coleman songs to describe the process of getting her life back on track after divorce with a brilliant mash-up that included the self-reflective “Where Am I Going?” and “I’m the Bravest Individual” (with Dorothy Fields, both from Sweet Charity); the self-arbitration of “He’s No Good” (lyrics Ira Gasman, from The Life); a slowed-down “Hey, Look Me Over” (with Carolyn Leigh, from Wildcat); and ultimate resolution to move forward with “It’s Not Where You Start,” from Seesaw.
Kemp was effectively on point on the self-deprecating “You Can Always Count on Me” (Coleman/David Zippel, from City of Angels) and powerful on “Always Starting Over” (Tom Kitt/Brian Yorkey, from If/Then), followed by a smooth, sensual version of “Feeling Good” (Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse, from The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd) that seemed to reflect how many in the audience felt when the show was over.