Moody blue lighting and a cheerful atmosphere filled the air last Saturday in the Patricelli ’92 Theater as a small audience filed in, laughing and chatting. The whole feeling was relaxed and casual as the evening’s performers strolled around, occasionally waving to the audience. Once everyone was seated and quiet, Ross Shenker ’11 joined Samantha Pearlman ’11 in welcoming the audience to Second Stage’s inaugural performance for the Fall 2010 season, “Becoming 20-Something: A Cabaret Evening.”

Now, I’m not usually one for cabarets, but this performance, directed by Pearlman and coordinated by Shenker, was a definite success. The duo introduced the performance by explaining their own experiences with cabaret and explaining what their vision for the art form was: individual performers reinterpreting songs, re-contextualizing them to fit their own lives. Pearlman and Shenker wrapped up their spiel with a joke or two, then retreated and let the performances begin.

First up to bat was a fresh new face, Jessica Best ’14. Best has a sweet, strong (almost folksy) voice, and used it well during her section: “River,” by Joni Mitchell, and “Photograph,” by Diane Birch. I thoroughly enjoyed her performance, although she seemed a little bit nervous. Her strongest piece was “Photograph,” which allowed her to show off her excellent storytelling capabilities—a strong first appearance indeed.

Best was followed by Shenker himself, a confident storyteller who kept us with him by means of witty banter and playful demeanor. Even when he forgot the lyrics just 10 seconds into his first piece, the devilishly tricky “Everybody Says Don’t” from Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle, he played it off with great aplomb. His voice, a classical Broadway voice that’s bright and energetic, and his playfulness were his greatest assets. His second piece, “Love to Me” from Light in the Piazza, was a nice contrast – tender and sweet.

Shenker introduced Emily Hunt ’13. Hunt’s voice, while still in the classic show tune style that Shenker uses, had a nice balance to it: vibrant, but not forceful. Her first piece, “Everything Else” from the current hit Next to Normal, was emotional and moving, but what I found really remarkable about Hunt’s performance was the way she allowed the audience into her private life. All the performers did, of course, but I found Hunt’s story of a childhood crush on a ski instructor unusually honest and intimate. This honesty did wonders to her radical reimagining of the classic “On My Own” from Les Misérables, which was sweet and playful (even naughty!) rather than the mournful, self-pitying mood the song usually evokes.

Justin Bours ’10, a fifth year grad-student, made a strong turn after Hunt. His manner was a fun change of pace, very gentlemanly, suave, sophisticated; it was almost something I would expect in the line of Frank Sinatra. His first piece, “Twenty-Something” by Jamie Cullum, was a lot of fun and showed off his voice, which is low, rich, and mellow. His second piece, “If I Didn’t Believe in You” from The Last 5 Years, showed off his chops as a theatrical performer and, like Hunt’s performance, took on a whole new dimension because of his openness about its meaning to him and his mother.

Audrey Kiely ’13 was the second-to-last performer and, though friendly and open, was also the most broadly performative. What she lacked in heavy-duty vocal chops, she made up for with her boundless enthusiasm and obvious love of performing: her pieces, Cole Porter’s “What is This Thing Called Love?” and “I Have a Dream” from Mamma Mia! had a freewheeling, fun-loving feel.

The final performer was Pearlman herself, who in many ways stole the show. She is the consumate musical theater performer: endearing, honest, and altogether a pleasure to watch. She’s an honest storyteller (I particularly enjoyed the fact that her pieces were connected in the narrative she told) who has also mastered the art of singing as much as she speaks: rich, full, and vibrant, nearly quivering with energy. Watching her in “Breathe,” from In the Heights, and “Take Me to the World,” a Sondheim cabaret standard, was a joy.

The night closed with a group number featuring all six performers in turn, in the piece “Light” from Next to Normal. It was enjoyable, and very earnest, but ultimately I thought that the highlights of the evening lay in the solo performances, more endearing because of their personal connections. All six were strong performers, and Shenker and Nora Dumont ’13 also deserve mention in their roles as accompanists. Has this cynic turned into a cabaret lover? Well, no. But I can’t deny how much fun it was to share with these performers their hopes, fears, and dreams.

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