Report: Joe Iconis at Mr. Finn’s Cabaret
by Gail Burns and Larry Murray
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On May 25 and 26, 2012 , Mr. Finn’s Cabaret opened to the public with Joe Iconis and Family as the opening act. It is located in the lower level of the new Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center (formerly Stage 2), 36 Linden Street, Pittsfield. It is named in honor of William Finn, artistic director of the Barrington Stage Musical Theatre Lab and the “godfather” to many of the performers who will appear there. Finn seems to be the mentor of choice for many developing musical theatre writers.
Burns and Murray were tickled to be among the few press people seated among the glitterati at the sold-out opening night on May 25, 2012. Sydelle and Lee Blatt were there and got the biggest round of applause of the evening.
For our insatiable coterie of Gail-stalkers we can report that she fearlessly wore the satin floral top that makes her look like an over-stuffed settee, with red pants, despite the advice of the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce that she wear a full linen skirt and a fitted jacket.
Gail Burns: BSC Artistic Director Julianne Boyd, also stylish in red, was just beaming when we arrived. She and Bill Finn did this cabaret up right. If you are going to have an opening night, forget the fancy stuff, all you need to do is focus on what happens on stage, everything else is window dressing.
Larry Murray: Bill Finn was there, too, decked out in tasteful black. He was nearby, watching over the birth of his baby. We were even closer, so close to the singers in fact, that I was afraid if I stretched out my arms they would hand me the microphone or a tambourine.
Gail: With 49 seats, everyone becomes part of the act. Joe Iconis and his compositions were all new to me, and with his eclectic “family” they made a merry band of slightly naughty troubadours. Have you seen them before?
Larry: I was a Joe Iconis virgin until last night, too. He’s got a style that is uniquely his own and while it is musical theatre at its core, it has something else, too. Can you put your finger on it?
Gail: His lyrics are complex and very definitely Gen Y (Isn’t that the letter of the alphabet we’re up to now?) He also has a nerdy retro style and a sense of humor that reminds me of the legendary Tom Lehrer, but he is more than just a comic songwriter. At the start, when there were a pile of bouncy songs front-loaded, I feared a certain sameness to his style, but as the evening wore on Iconis and his “family” showed their true range and virtuosity.
Larry: I liked the way his lyrics always came across as authentic, almost like little heart to heart confessions set to music, sprinkled with ironic humor that rhymed, not an easy feat. Iconis was at the piano the whole time, and the others played instruments as each song called for.
Gail: Yes, the “family” – Eric William Morris, Jeremy Morse, Jason “Sweet Tooth” Williams, and Molly Hager – were not only all amazing actor/singers but Morris played a mean guitar and Morse a fine fiddle. Williams and Hager filled in on percussion. And just when I thought they’d done everything but tap dance to earn our attention and approval, Morse swapped his shoes and busted out a riff. It was the perfect expression of the sexual tensions built up in the lyrics of “She Likes the Dirty Little Things I Say…”
Larry: Morse sure knocked me out with that tap dance number as well. Musically Iconis was channeling George M. Cohan, too.
He also broke me up with “Hello Naked Korean Girl” which was a whole fantasy stuffed into several stanzas of lyrics. Morris launched into a cowboy song complete with twang for what turned out to be a rock and roll spaghetti western moment.
Gail: Well I liked Morris playing Hager’s reluctant feline compatriot, getting fitted out with a “Party Hat ” He wore that hat with true feline panache and indignity.
Larry: What really got me, though, were two songs that really choked me up. The first, sung by Hager, was about a young actor standing on the ledge of a roof that overlooks Broadway, and her thoughts as she headed toward the pavement in “Broadway Here I Come.” But even in this darkest of songs there was a moment of levity as she thought about how she was about to make a “splash” on Broadway. It’s a breathtakingly daring song that captures the crushing disappointment everyone feels once in a while.
The other song that got to me, “The Goodbye Song,” was sang at the end of the show mainly by Williams and it had to be as touching as anything Iconis has ever written. I first ran across it when preparing the preview for the cabaret. It was one of several dozen songs I considered for an embedded sample. It captures the essence of Iconis. Sweet Tooth did it with so much heart and energy that I was able to quietly sing along, Funny, after having listened to it a couple of times it had already become part of me.
Iconis is still pretty young – from my vantage point at least – and I loved how he still connected with his inner child and adolescent fantasies. I love to give out honorary titles to the truly talented, so henceforth he is my “poet laureate of frustration.” The two songs Williams sang in the middle of the set – the one about Helen, the girl he had a crush on in high school, with her ending up in skin flicks had all sorts of unexpected twists and turns. Another, about waiting to be picked for the gym class team – was funny and touching as his disappointment deepened. It captured the agonies of high school to perfection.
Gail: I would love to have a CD of this cabaret set because all of the songs were wonderful and either made me laugh or cry. I wish there had been a song list in the program so I could try to track down the ones that are available online.
Larry: Actually I just googled Joe Iconis and found a wonderful sampling by some of the same artists we saw at Mr. Finn’s Cabaret, and with other members of his impressive family. It’s a stay up late crowd.
Gail: We’re both transplanted New Yorkers, so I shouldn’t have been so surprised that we didn’t get back home until after midnight.
Larry: Yeah, in the city clubs things worth seeing usually don’t even get going until 11:00. At Mr. Finn’s cabaret there were some folks who just automatically headed for the door at the stroke of eleven, it’s something you see often in small communities, they think about how they have to get up at the ungodly hour of six or something. Didn’t anyone tell them the golden rule of cabarets, that the closer to midnight, the more creative the performers become?
Gail: They may have missed the best part of the show, the energy of the last few songs was like nothing I have ever seen before in the Berkshires.
Larry: The “family” cast was sure juiced, and that’s amazing since there was no hard liquor anywhere to be seen, just beer, wine and soft drinks. Did you get the feeling that the performers were enjoying the intimacy of the small room? There was sure a lot of hootin’ and hollarin’ going on.
Gail: It was great – and LOUD! I know cabarets are traditionally miked but in that small space it was intense at times, particularly at the end. I didn’t miss the hard liquor, but I would have liked some seltzer water or Ginger Ale on sale at the bar. Plain ol’ water is just so…plain!
Larry: Leaving the theatre I really felt sad knowing that there will be a wait until the next show at Mr. Finn’s, July 6-7 with the Niko (Tsakalakos) Songbook. Or to see Joe Iconis’ musical The Black Suits which begins at Barrington Stage August 16 to September 2.
What I loved about Mr.Finn’s Cabaret is that I did not have to trek all the way to Joe’s Pub or the Laurie Beechman Theatrein Manhattan to get my dose of sophisticated and theatrical music. Finally, we have our own hidden away club room right on Linden Street in Pittsfield. It’s on the northern edge of the Upstreet Cultural Distict, and it signals yet another cosmopolitan step in the evolution of the Berkshires as a smart,sophisticated place not only for visitors, but for us residents as well.
Gail: One of the reasons for the wait is that there is still work to be done on the space. Julie Boyd mentioned that she doesn’t like the color of the walls in the men’s room, but that’s a minor blip. They want to get the space up to code for 75-person occupancy, which will make it more lucrative and more accessible. We both noted that the air conditioning will need to be boosted in that windowless space during the height of the summer, and the offerings from the bar will surely be expanded. But I bet by the time The Niko Songbook opens Mr. Finn’s Cabaret will be a really happening hide-away.
Larry: Mr. Finn’s Cabaret is the best thing to happen to Pittsfield since the diving horses that once performed at Pontoosuc Lake.