Despite the extra room in the audience, the '60s-themed cabaret amazed as the opener of The Artist Series Concerts' 24th season.
The Artist Series Concerts chose to open its 24th Season with a “Pops Extra” featuring singer Jennifer Sheehan and her trio at the Sarasota Opera House on Oct. 5. Normally, the series would open with its usual more classical fare, but this one somehow just seemed to fit in with a bit of autumn spirit and the adjacent street fare.
Sheehan is no stranger to Sarasota audiences, having appeared here several times under the auspices of the Artist Series Concerts. She certainly had her fans in the Opera House audience, which seemed only a bit over half capacity yet was most enthusiastic.
Sheehan is a vocal graduate of the Juilliard School, but her classical training doesn’t get in her way the least bit in putting over her songs. She is devoted to the Great American Songbook of popular songs we used to call “standards,” which with few exceptions are a far cry from the music of the late 20th and early 21st century, which seems to be everywhere.
This year’s theme — more cabaret than concert — was entitled “I Know a Place,” with her own subtitle of “Do You Remember the '60s?”
She sings with a lovely sound that is truly on pitch, and her performances, especially ballads, are lyric-driven in a style reminiscent of the late and great Barbara Cook. Those ballads were a bit few and far between in this rocking and rolling journey through the music of the 1960s, but when they were, everyone was listening intently.
Sheehan has a confident and relaxed stage manner, no doubt gained from her appearances in top cabaret venues of New York City and elsewhere, and she can completely charm an audience.
This trip down memory lane seemed to hit every musical station on her '60s journey from the sophisticated sounds of Burt Bachrach, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Henry Mancini and Barbra Streisand through Motown favorites of the Shirelles, Fats Domino and on and on. Of course, there were tributes to Joni Mitchell, Spanky and Our Gang, the Fifth Dimension and The Beatles. There was a lot more, and her two sets, combined with an intermission, made for a full length concert.
The audience seemed to love her presentation, together with just enough choreography and variety to keep things moving, yet there were those moments of quiet repose as in her lovely singing of “Moon River,” accompanied only by the tasteful guitar of Stephen Benson.
One lesser known number from the '60s was “The Boy From …,” written by Dorothy Rodgers with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It’s a hilarious parody of Jobim’s “The Girl from Impanema” and was written for “The Mad Show.” Somehow it didn’t seem to register with this audience. Admittedly, the lyrics pretty much flew by in Sondheim fashion, but it is a very funny song.
Of course, no singer is better than her musical team, and Sheehan was beautifully backed up and supported by pianist/arranger James Followell; Stephen Benson, guitar; and Dan Gross, percussion. Excuse the pun, but Followell did just that, providing a driving rock or bossa nova accompaniment one minute then immediately moving to a languid slow ballad, and his colleagues were always with him. All the arrangements seemed perfect for the selections and her voice.
The only less than positive thing about the afternoon was the size of the venue. For a cabaret singer, the Sarasota Opera House is hardly an intimate venue where cabaret belongs. Yet she and the trio commanded the stage and Opera House as if it were an intimate room. Just another glaring example of Sarasota’s need for a medium-sized chamber music and recital hall, which is planned as part of the new Music Center, still seeking a home.
Yes, it was a bit odd for the Artist Series Concerts to open with cabaret, when saving it for later in the season with more of our seasonal visitors are here could likely have provided a larger audience. Yet, Artist Series Concert seasons are always full of surprises, usually for the best. Now we look forward to the rest of this coming season, especially “New Faces — New Stars,” which includes the Sarasota appearance of cellist Zlatomir Fung, who recently won first prize gold in Russia’s Tchaikovsky Competition earlier this year. Another first for Sarasota.