Katie Karel: How Lucky Can You Get?

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Katie Karel

How Lucky Can You Get?

Blue Strawberry, St. Louis, MO, February 20, 2020

Reviewed by Chuck Lavazzi

Katie Karel

I have always said that performers with theater backgrounds often come up with the best cabaret acts, if only because they are comfortable with the story-telling basis of the form. Anyone who has attended recent shows at the Blue Strawberry by Emily Skinner or our own Anna Blair saw evidence of that.

More evidence was available when singer/actress Katie Karel made the trip from her hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, to present her new show How Lucky Can You Get? at the Blue Strawberry. She played a prominent role in the critically praised Max and Louie Productions presentation of Paula Vogel’s Indecent here last year, so she’s no stranger to St. Louis audiences. But this was her debut locally as a cabaret artist and an auspicious one it was.

The evening was a bit rough in spots (as one might expect from something that is clearly a work in progress), and the show should probably be trimmed down to the more traditional one-act cabaret format; still, it was immensely entertaining and served as a fine showcase for Karel’s considerable vocal and thespian strengths, as well as her skill as a stand-up comic in much of her between-song patter. Indeed, her resemblance to the character Rachel Brosnan plays in the Amazon series The Amazing Mrs. Maisel was sometimes eerie—and that was a good thing.

Consisting mostly of musical-theater songs, the show got off to a flying start with “Everybody Says Don’t” (from Sondheim’s rarely seen Anyone Can Whistle) that quickly established her power as a singer and her ability to communicate the heart of a lyric. The remainder of the evening was spent paying tribute to some of the great female vocalists of the Broadway stage, linked by just enough autobiography to establish why each song was meaningful without falling off the “too much information” cliff.

So, for example, she proceeded her sunny take on “A Cockeyed Optimist” (South Pacific) by noting that “in order to do what I do, you have to have a sunny disposition.” Combined with her bright yellow dress and matching shoes, that performance truly lit up the stage.  Towards the end of the show, the revelation that she had recently fought cancer led into a lovely rendition of “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes” (from the 1950 Disney film version of Cinderella), followed by a rousing audience-participation version of Kander and Ebb’s title song for the musical Cabaret.

The standing ovation that followed was both inevitable and well earned.

There were so many highlights in this bright, engaging show that I can’t list them all here. I was quite impressed by the pair of Sondheim numbers that opened the second half of the show: the title song from Sunday in the Park with George followed by that ultimate torch song “Losing My Mind” (Follies). “All you have to do with Sondheim,” Karel shrewdly observed, “is what’s on the page.” I couldn’t agree more. As with a Shakespeare play, the best thing you can do is not get in the way of the author.

Patsy Cline fans got a big treat in the second half, as well, with a medley of five numbers associated with the country music legend, ending with a soulful version of “Lovesick Blues” (a hit single for Hank Williams in 1948 but actually dating back to the 1922 musical Oh, Ernest) that showed off her vocal flexibility. Karel has played the late country star in Always…Patsy Cline in the past (and will again this year) even though her voice, with its classic, 1930s-style rapid vibrato, doesn’t sound much like Cline’s. Since she had the attitude and the emotion right, though, that hardly mattered.

At the piano, music director Ron McGowan provided a solid musical foundation, and his arrangements fitted Karel’s style as much as her striking dress fit her. It’s one of cabaret’s little ironies that really good music directors will sometime go unnoticed precisely because their work is so well tailored to the soloist. Hence the need now and then for us critic types to draw attention to it.

Katie Karel’s one-night stand here is over, of course, but with any luck we’ll have the opportunity to see more of her skill as a singer, actor, and comic in the future.

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.