Katie McGrath: Significant Others

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Katie McGrath

Significant Others

The Gaslight Theater, St. Louis, MO, November 10, 2017

Reviewed by Chuck Lavazzi for Cabaret Scenes

Katie McGrath

If you wanted to write a How to Do Cabaret textbook, you could easily start with Significant Others, the latest show by former St. Louisan Katie McGrath. With a great song list ranging from Bon Jovi to Cole Porter, perfectly tailored arrangements by Rick Jensen, ideally paced direction by Lina Koutrakos, and McGrath’s powerfully genuine stage presence, this was a show that hit all the right notes, literal and figurative.

From the moment McGrath stepped on stage in a sleek basic black outfit that nicely set off her striking blonde hair and silver earrings, she grabbed our attention with the haunting lyrics Steve Porcaro and John Bettis wrote for the Michael Jackson hit “Human Nature”: “Looking out/Across the nighttime/The city winks a sleepless eye.” By the time she got to “If this town/Is just an apple/Then let me take a bite” there was little doubt that she was singing not just about her new hometown of New York City, but about her entire approach to life as well—a view confirmed by the next song, a giddy run through Frank Loesser’s “If I Were a Bell” from Guys and Dolls. As we say over at the Church of the SubGenius, she’s not just going to eat that apple, she’s gong to eat the hell out of it.

I should pause here to point out that I have known McGrath for over a decade, going back to when we both attended an early edition of the St. Louis Cabaret Conference. Even then, before experience and training had allowed her to polish her craft, it was obvious that her singing had the immediacy and emotional truth that is at the heart of cabaret performance.

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No wonder that Gerry Geddes, in a review of the NYC debut of this show in June, wrote that she has now “pursued, captured, and pretty much perfected cabaret performance.”

The “significant others” term, as McGrath pointed out, goes back to the original psychological definition of the term as anyone who had a strong influence on one’s self-concept. For her, that includes not only her current partner Chet (the subject of a charming original song by McGrath and Alex Rybeck near the end of the show), but also her parents, her many siblings, her favorite babysitter, and even Senator Kamala Harris, whose pointed questioning of Jeff Sessions she praised with Frank Loesser’s “I Believe in You” (from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying).

Memories of how her babysitter introduced her and her siblings to the joys of Motown in the 1960s led to an ingenious bit in which she and Jensen sang only the backup parts of “Heat Wave” and “Come See About Me” (because only her babysitter could be Martha Reeves or Diana Ross), while she channeled her inner child trying (and failing) to execute the dance moves. That child stayed with us in the next song, Dar Williams’s poignant “The Babysitter’s Here,” which views a failing relationship through the eyes of someone young enough to understand pain, but not yet old enough to understand its source.

McGrath touched on her family’s struggle with alcoholism early on, but did so in a way that not only completely avoided self-pity, but also turned the pain into art with a wistful version of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” That led to a story about encountering Berlin during a youthful trip to New York City, which in turn served as the basis for Rupert Holmes’ “People That You Never Get to Love.” It was an example of the solid dramatic structure of Significant Others, in which the experienced hand of Koutrakos was evident.

The show closed with a little something they didn’t get in the Big Apple: James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” sung in harmony with St. Louis singers Jeff Wright and Dionna Raedeke as a tribute to the late Neal Richardson, whose work as an arranger, music director, and educator enriched the lives of so many here in St. Louis before his own life was tragically cut short by illness earlier this year. It was a moment of true beauty.

Significant Others was, in short, a perfect blend of laughter and tears delivered by a singer who is now a master of her art, riding on Jensen’s impeccably tailored arrangements. Our loss has been New York City’s gain, and it was nice to see Katie McGrath once again holding forth on her home turf.

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Let us hope she returns soon.

Chuck Lavazzi

Chuck Lavazzi is the producer for the arts calendars and senior performing arts critic at 88.1 KDHX, the host of The Cabaret Project’s monthly open mic night, and entirely to blame for the Stage Left blog at stageleft-stlouis.blogspot.com. He’s a member of the Music Critics Association of North America and the St. Louis Theater Circle. Chuck has been an actor, sound designer, and occasional director since roughly the Bronze Age. He has presented his cabaret show Just a Song at Twilight: the Golden Age of Vaudeville, at the Missouri History Museum and the Kranzberg Center.