CabaretFest Provincetown 2023: Sondheim by the Sea: A Celebration of His Musical Life & Work

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CabaretFest Provincetown 2023

Sondheim by the Sea: A Celebration of His Musical Life & Work

June 5-11, 2023

By John Amodeo

Photos by Michael Stever

Following Stephen Sondheim’s passing on November 26, 2021, the tributes have been rolling in, with revivals of Company and Sweeney Todd gracing Broadway and a much-anticipated revival of Merrily We Roll Along about to open on Broadway coming this fall, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff, and Lindsay Mendez. The same has been true in the cabaret world, and even though CabaretFest producer Patricia Fitzpatrick had planned Sondheim by the Sea for CabaretFest 2023 well before Sondheim’s death. It was nevertheless fitting to spend a week this past June immersed in the work of one of Broadway’s most iconic and impactful composer/lyricist of the past 70 years.

Patricia Fitzpatrick

Fitzpatrick has elevated the proceedings of CabaretFest each year with more and more extraordinary talent, and this year was no exception. There was a star-studded lineup for shows Thursday through Saturday, and even a few surprises for the Sunday brunch finale.

Doris Dear, Slightly Sondheim Thursday, June 8, Crown & Anchor

Doris Dear

If you ever thought that a man dressed in drag as “America’s Perfect Housewife” singing Sondheim’s “Being Alive” in his own deep basso voice couldn’t be anything but ridiculous, think again. Doris Dear just about performed a three-act play during that song with power, conviction, and self-affirmation; it was as moving as any version I’ve ever seen. In fact, Dear’s whole show was filled with moving and often hilarious stories of family that spoke of love, loyalty, and laughter. It was a lesson about the power of love to build character and moral fiber. It was a show that all of Florida’s elected officials (and parents of school children nationwide) could benefit from, and it might in fact change their points of view. Some additional highlights included “Another Hundred People” spiced up with some fun tempo changes), “The Boys Downstairs,” and a poignant tribute to her mother, who always assured young Ray DeForest (aka Doris Dear) that “you’re always safe with me.” This led into a poignant “Not While I’m Around” that drew more than a few tears from the audience.

The Vodka Stingers, Another Vodka Stinger: The Songs of Stephen Sondheim & Stephen Schwartz, Friday, June 9, Crown & Anchor

Jo Brisbane

The Vodka Stingers, a cabaret sextet led by Jo Brisbane, includes Laura Shea Holland, Ken Holland, Ashley LaCroix, Jane Loutzenhiser, and Steve Ross, with music director Pamela Wannie. They presented an enjoyable show of songs by the two Stephens, Sondheim and Schwartz, presented either as choral-harmony numbers or solos to spotlight the considerable talents of each songwriter. The choral numbers in this performance, which included their opener “Magic to Do” and the closer “Send in the Clowns,” were a little shaky; there were some off-pitch harmonies that I attribute to the fact that not all the singers had access to the stage monitors given the tight confines of the small stage for seven performers. They acquitted themselves nicely in the solos, however. Some highlights included LaCroix’s “Spread a Little Sunshine” peppered with adorably subtle innuendo; Holland’s “Popular,” a charming choice for her, Ross’ powerful “Corner of the Sky,” which showcased his lovely singing voice; Holland and Ross’ duet “Agony,” which went for comic gusto; and most impressive, Loutzenhiser’s briskly paced and beautifully sung “Lion Tamer,” which packed an emotional punch. With a little more work on the group numbers, this could be an even more enjoyable show focusing on two great Broadway songwriters whose songs combine even better than one might suppose.  

Elliot Roth & Karen Mack, Sondheim…with a Twist, Friday, June 9, Crown & Anchor

Elliot Roth & Karen Mack

This duo was brought together by their mutual isolation during the pandemic. Over the past three years they have become a well-oiled act displaying great chemistry and exceptional musical taste. Mack, with her mellifluous singing voice and bubbly personality, is a joy to watch and listen to, and Roth, who holds his own vocally, adds incredible depth to their proceedings with his remarkably rich piano playing and well-crafted arrangements. They opened strongly with “Back in Business.” It was perhaps a nod to their return to live performing following the long pandemic shutdown, and it showcased their well-honed harmonies along with Roth’s lush accompaniment. Some highlights from a show filled with highlights included Roth on “Better Than…,” a Dave Frishberg song given new and clever Sondheimesque lyrics; Mack knocking Little Red’s song “I Know Things Now” right out of the park and then offering a gorgeous bel canto “Love, I Hear”; a medley that included “Unworthy of Your Love” that had harmonies like butter; and a duet on “Getting Married Today,” that had Tracy Stark at the piano who, with deadpan hilarity, provided a soprano solo, all of which took down the house. This show could be seen over and over and never get old.

David Rhodes, Does Anyone Still Finish…A Hat: A Musical Musing on Life, Saturday, June 10, Crown & Anchor

David Rhodes

David Rhodes is a singing actor of the highest order whose shows are always well-crafted and exceptionally well performed. They have superb production values that include character-appropriate costume changes, dramatic lighting, and rich musical arrangements. Rhodes’ riveting storytelling is made more thrilling by its sheer authenticity and honesty of delivery. This was a very personal show about the meaning of being an artist and about Sondheim’s songs, which often address the issue of making art in many of his shows, but most notably in Sunday in the Park with George. This was the perfect vehicle for Rhodes’ journey as an artist. Because live theater always involves risk, Rhodes, who had been struck with laryngitis earlier in the week, made the brave choice not to cancel his show; in true “the show must go on” fashion, he elected to speak-sing his songs. What followed was truly extraordinary; it was a master class in lyric interpretation achieved through highly focused acting and a deep connection to the song. His show delivered some strong messages, including a story of artistic censorship in grade school over a provocative drawing of his. This was followed by “Everybody Says Don’t” and a sad but true story about his parents sending him to psychotherapy as a child suspecting he might be gay. It segued into “Children Will Listen” followed by some fun patter about being a disturbed person to whom masochistic people hitch their wagons. It led into “Buddy’s Blues,” which featured some hilarious male and female hand puppets that Rhodes had created to portray the alternative characters of the song. The show ended with “Putting It Together,” an ode to being a self-produced artist. The show lost absolutely none of its power becasue the songs were spoken rather than sung, though I do look forward to seeing this show again when I know Rhodes’ singing will make the show soar even higher.   

Meg Flather, Sondheim and Hammerstein: Carefully Taught, Saturday, June 10, Crown & Anchor

Meg Flather

Meg Flather is one of the most intelligent and scholarly singers on the scene today. Although her themed shows offer great insight into the composers and lyricists she highlights, she always manages to bring her content-rich patter down to a personal and universal common denominator such that we can all identify with her personal story and with the story she tells through song. That was certainly the case with Sondheim and Hammerstein: Carefully Taught, a riff on the fact that Sondheim himself learned a great deal when he was taken under the wing of father-figure Oscar Hammerstein II. After Sondheim’s parents’ divorce at the young age of 12, his fatherless family moved next door to the Hammersteins. Flather went on to tell this fascinating story, interweaving it with stories about her relationship with her own father. Some highlights included the opener “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning”/“Sunday” with lovely harmony from Tracy Stark who was also on piano, and an outstanding “Free” from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” “Life Upon the Wicked Stage (Show Boat) morphed beautifully into “Gotta Get a Gimmick” (Gypsy) that included some fun interplay with Stark, and she offered a riveting medley of “Something Wonderful”/“What’s the Use of Wond’rin’”/“Sorry-Grateful.” Her comparison of Hammerstein’s and Sondheim’s marginalized men, Jud Fry and Sweeny Todd, was dramatized in a medley of “Lonely Room” and “We All Deserve to Die” that was an acting tour de force. This is a show not to miss if she performs it again.

Mardie Millit and Michael Garin, Sorry/Grateful: Our View of Sondheim, Saturday, June 10, Crown & Anchor

Michael Garin & Mardie Millit

This husband-and-wife team always packs a powerful punch, performing shows that disarm with humor but have important messages that sink in as the laughter subsides. This show was no exception, but it has a new spin—it is based on Millit’s own personal story. Still, Garin, provided vocals and is also the duo’s music director/pianist, put together some lovely arrangements for Millit’s very personal show about her special relationship with Sondheim, which she premiered at CabaretFest. To say anything more about her story would be a disservice to both performer and audience, but suffice it to say that she tells her story with humor and humility, and it unfolds until it becomes an astonishing tale of a lifelong connection between two unlikely mates. Millit lent her crisp, pitch-perfect voice, intelligent phrasing, and personal interpretations to “Sorry/Grateful,” “Anyone Can Whistle,” “Everybody Says Don’t,” and “Like It Was.” But she also gave Garin the spotlight, where he offered a piano mashup of “Losing My Mind” and “Stop! In the Name of Love,” both given a rock-and-roll beat. He also offered a fun “Hard Hearted Hannah,” a song he said Sondheim had wished he had written, combined with “Uptown/Downtown,” (cut from Follies). The high point of the show was a powerful duet medley of “Take Me to the World” and “Our Time” that soared into the stratosphere. This may be the first time Millit, with Garin’s able help, has told her story, but I hope it won’t be her last, because this is a story and a show that needs to be experienced.

There were also variety-style shows on Friday and Saturday night. During the Sunday brunch there, where dozens of singers who were invited to perform a number, some of whom didn’t have their own shows during the festival. There isn’t room to honor all of the amazing talent on display, but some of Friday’s finest moments included Pamela Enders’ “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” Lisa Kantor’s honest and powerful “Good Thing Going,” Shelley Taylor Boyd’s poignant “For Good,” Jeff Tagen’s wonderfully acerbic “Could I Leave You,” Rod Ferguson’s stupendous “Spending a Moment with You,” Brian DeLorenzo’s “Take the Moment,” Sean Patrick Murtaugh’s outstanding “Everybody Says Don’t (Murtaugh had a full show on Friday that I couldn’t attend and review but heard it was wonderful), Jake Oswell’s stunning “Make Good”/”When I Meet the Wizard,” Dawn Derow’s “Moments in the Woods,” and Frankie Campofelice’s tender “So Many People.”

Tracy Stark

Pamela Enders

Saturday night included some stellar moments: Tracy Stark’s moving “Beautiful City” and Pamela Enders wowing the audience with a riveting mash up of “Not a Day Goes By” (Merrily We Roll Along)/“Blame It On the Summer Night” (Rags), and a hilariously droll “I Never Do Anything Twice.”

Warren Schein

CabaretFest producer Patricia Fitzpatrick delivered a medley of “Losing My Mind”/“You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” and then presented the Lifetime Achievement Award to CabaretFest favorite Warren Shein, who then performed a delightful medley of “Sing for Your Supper”/“Sing, Sing, Sing”/“Sing a Simple Song” with some Mel Tormé-style scatting thrown in for good measure.

Nicolas King & Seth Sikes; Angela Bacari

During the Sunday brunch, where Fitzpatrick invited the master class and workshop students to sing, we heard a series of showstoppers that included Francis Garner’s stirring “Being Alive” filled with yearning, Frankie Campofelice’s layered and vocally powerful “Giants in the Sky,” and Nicolas King’s tender “With So Little to Be Sure Of.” King invited two guests to join him for duets. First, he brought up his new singing partner Seth Sikes for a thrilling “Come Back to Me,” followed by a duet with his grandmother, Angela Bacari, as they closed the festival with a rock-the-rafters medley of “Stormy Weather” and “When the Sung Comes Out.”

Sidney Myer & Michael Stever

Each year, Fitzpatrick has found ways to expand CabaretFest, not just with more performances, but with more educational opportunities. As she has done in the past, Fitzpatrick had programmed the week with master classes, workshops, and a question-and-answer panel to help singers hone their skills in a safe and supportive environment. She employed such skilled teachers as Angela Bacari (vocal coach to the stars, most famously Liza Minnelli); MAC and Bistro multi-award winner Sidney Myer; performance artist David Rhodes; and Ray DeForest, aka Doris Dear. These events were hosted at The Commons on Bradford Street.

Fitzpatrick has also provided 30-minute Spotlight Shows to enable emerging artists to get their sea legs, so to speak, by putting a show together in a smaller, less-pressured format. This year, Vivienne LaBarbera, Charles Evans, Jeanne Collins, Jeff Tagen, and Lynn Flickinger were the Spotlight artists. To honor the fine work these emerging artists have done, Fitzpatrick has created the Mike Renzi Spotlight Award for outstanding work done by a Spotlight artist during the previous year. This year’s recipient was Boston-based Pamela Enders, who has since become one of Boston’s most prominent cabaret artists. Fitzpatrick named the award after Renzi, who had been a beloved CabaretFest participant and accompanist during the years before his passing in September 2021.

Next year’s CabaretFest is already set with the intriguing theme The Golden Age of Nightclubs; it spotlights the nightclub scenes of New York, Las Vegas, Miami Beach, and Los Angeles. That’s something to look forward to. 

John Amodeo

John Amodeo has been a contributing writer to Cabaret Scenes since 1998, has written cabaret articles for, was a cabaret journalist for Bay Windows (1999-2005), and then for Edge Publications (2005-present).  John has been producer, assistant producer, and host for several Boston-area cabaret galas over the past 25 years, and produced Brian De Lorenzo’s MACC-nominated recording “Found Treasures.” His liner notes grace several cabaret CDs. John holds degrees in landscape architecture from Cornell and Harvard Universities, and has been practicing landscape architecture in Boston for 35 years, where he is a partner in his firm. John was a founding member of the Boston Association of Cabaret Artists (BACA), and served as BACA Vice President for 2 terms. He is happily married to his favorite cabaret artist Brian De Lorenzo.