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Counting on audience recall

Foursome brings their love of cabaret and movie music to Scullers, Sept. 27

by John Amodeo
Bay Windows
SEPTEMBER 21, 2000

For many of us who were part of the baby boom generation, watching old movies was a major adolescent pastime. Lying on the living room floor, heads propped up in our hands, hours could pass watching "Mighty Joe Young," "Casablanca," "Rear Window," or "Roman Holiday." For those of us who are gay, that pastime resonated even deeper, offering us a lifeline to a safe haven of magical, mysterious, exotic, and/or glamorous places -- at a time when the real world was mostly frustrating and confusing. Today, hearing movie themes like "The Shadow of Your Smile" or "The Pink Panther Theme" has us instantly nostalgic, recalling where we were, what we were doing, and how we felt when that movie affected us most. Over the past year, four Boston-area cabaret performers, Will McMillan, Brian Patton, Michael Ricca, and Nina Vansuch, have been working to capture the essence of that feeling within their upcoming show, "At the Movies," which will be presented at Scullers Jazz Club on Wednesday, September 27.

A little over a year ago, McMillan, Ricca, and Vansuch were among the 37 fellows attending the Eugene O'Neill Cabaret Symposium, an intense 10-day immersion into the art of cabaret performing, offered each August in Waterford, Connecticut. Though already acquainted with one another, the three performers developed an even deeper bond from that shared experience. Wanting to apply their newfound knowledge before it dissolved, McMillan, Ricca, and Vansuch began to discuss collaborating on a show. During the Symposium, Ricca had displayed an uncanny knowledge of movies, inspiring Vansuch and McMillan to consider a show built around songs from the movies. By December, the trio was committed to putting something together, and brought in Patton, a friend of Vansuch's, to be their accompanist and music director. As a singer, choral arranger, and movie lover himself, Patton soon became an integral member of the creative team.

'A trained monkey'

The four performers, though close in age, and similar in their appreciation of eccentric humor, bring strong individual backgrounds and character to the show. Probably best known among the four in the cabaret community is McMillan, who has been working both behind and in front of the Boston cabaret scene over the past five or six years. He was a founding member of the Boston Association of Cabaret Artists, has created the Cabaret Connection at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education (CCAE), and has recently become the Director of Public Relations for the CCAE, from which he has tirelessly promoted the cabaret art form to the media and the public. As a cabaret performer himself, McMillan recently held his Scullers Jazz Club debut this past February, also releasing his first solo recording. As a child/teenager, McMillan had a vibrant performing career, appearing in numerous commercials, television movies, and was even a standby in the original production of "Pippin" on Broadway. He suspects the essence of that child actor still resides in him somewhere, explaining, "What I had very early on was a gift of being sensitive emotionally, and singing was a big part of that. When I was younger, l was [performing] like a trained monkey. Now I am doing it because I want to. That makes a big difference."

Ricca comes primarily from a stage background, having appeared locally with the New Repertory Theatre, Centastage, and Speakeasy Stage Company over the past decade after graduating from Emerson College. He is incorporating his musical theater background and movie obsessions into his first serious foray into cabaret.

Vansuch is very much a Renaissance woman, working in all aspects of the arts, including writing, illustration, sculpture, and performing. In addition, she created an arts program to help counsel troubled teens, an experience she draws upon frequently in her performing. "I was one of those kids myself. Music has really saved my life," she discloses. "The first place I worked when I was 19, I wrote to the NEA to fund an arts program for kids like me."

One of the most versatile members of the group is Patton, who is a singer, dancer, actor, pianist, choral arranger, and teacher, which he discusses easily with unassuming confidence. Ten years ago, he founded a cabaret foursome in New York City called 16th and Savoy. His tightly written four-part vocal arrangements even garnered the group positive comparisons from the critics to the Manhattan Transfer. Still he is most passionate about the performing, preferring to focus on collaborative projects. "I'm not a competitive person. That's why I like the group situation. I like the interaction," he acknowledges.

L-R, Brian Patton, Nina Vansuch, Michael Ricca and Will McMillan.
Photo: David Caras

More Mancini

Collaboration was indeed key in the development of "At the Movies." Each individual brought songs that they had either sung before or always wanted to sing, offering them up as suggestions. "For me, it was `Georgie Girl,'" explains Vansuch. Ricca contributed "Moon River," which has always moved him deeply. "One of my favorite films is 'Breakfast At Tiffany's,' and Audrey Hepburn is one of my favorite actresses. They are inseparable in my mind. The song is by Henry Mancini, who is one of the quintessential movie songwriters," he notes. Patton adds, "When we looked for more Mancini, we found `Baby Elephant Walk,' and discovered it had words. Who knew!" McMillan had always loved the song "Hi Lily, Hi Lily, Hi Lo," from "Carnival," which was added into the show the second time it was performed in Cambridge. Meanwhile, a Beatles medley was inspired by Vansuch's story of her first kiss, which occurred in a movie theater, watching "Hard Day's Night."

Instead of showcasing the individual talents of each performer, the team opted to perform the songs mostly as group numbers. "One of Brian [Patton]'s tools in his tool belt is music arranger ... so that was the direction we would inevitably go. We realized all of a sudden that we had to add solos," exclaims McMillan. Most of the solos have group backup vocals, however, leaving very few the times a performer is alone on stage. But the performer ego can't always be stifled, even among friends. "We started out very polite saying 'Oh, you sing that,' and it took us a long time before we could say, 'Uh, actually, I'd like to sing this,"' McMillan admits. Vansuch points out, however, "our voices really work well together. We didn't know if the harmony would work as three men and one woman. We are not the typical two-guy/two-girl arrangement of Manhattan Transfer. But as we evolve, we become more comfortable, and we can take more chances vocally."

In fact this show has been through a year's worth of evolution, culminating in next week's show at Scullers Jazz Club. In the interim, they performed the show twice this past year, back in March and again in May, in two separate sold-out runs at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. Carefully monitoring audience response, they have reordered songs, even within a medley. "I was very proud of this swing arrangement of one of the numbers in the Beatles medley, but it followed a ballad, and the audience just wasn't with us. So we added a mid-tempo transition," Patton explains. McMillan further notes, "The show we did in May was 30% different than the show in March. The show we will do at Scullers is probably 20% different than the show we did in May."

What hasn't changed is the reason this foursome has chosen songs from the movies, particularly from the '50s and '60s. "These songs are the movie. It's not just some pop song sung during the credits," claims Vansuch. Consequently, the group gets lots of reaction to their performance, as audiences recall their first movie theater kiss or the hours watching "Million Dollar Movies." Ricca articulates, "When you hear the song, not only does the song affect you, but the memory of watching the movie affects you, and what the movie meant to you at the time when you may have needed that in your life."

Will McMillan, Brian Patton, Michael Ricca, and Nina Vansuch perform "At the Movies," on September 27, 8 pm, at Scullers Jazz Club, Double Tree Guest Suites, 400 Soldiers Field Road, Boston. Tickets are $15. For reservations, call 562-4111.

Copyright © 2000 Bay Windows
Reprinted for Fair Use Only.

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