“A musical buffet for the audience” is the way Matt Conner, Creative Cauldron Associate Artist and curator of the Cauldron’s 2015 Summer Cabaret Series described what to expect. Laura Hull, founder and Producing Director of the Cauldron noted that, “each of the talented performers will create their own journeys through music and interacting with the audience.”
Well, both were right on the money, as local chanteuse and award-winning actor Bayla Whitten gave forth a charming, evergreen evening showcasing five decades of the Barbra Streisand songbook. The performance was called Bayla Sings Barbra: No Pressure!. In an all too quickly passing, high-contrast evening, Whitten mixed ballads and the up-tempo; the immediately recognizable with several less well-known, into 65 minutes that flew by.
Whitten did not try to imitate the sui generis signature Streisand delivery and New York City-inflected accent. What she did do was give each one of her songs her own imprint. Her delivery was smooth, her annunciation pure, and nuanced. Whitten easily reached high notes without visibly working hard and could hold last notes effortlessly to add nice codas. She received plenty of applause from the admiring full-house audience.
What Whitten also brought to her cabaret performance were sweet gestures to add color to her song delivery and patter. The songs were not merely well-accomplished deliveries of a composer and lyricist’s work, but were words with feelings. Her eyes – dark and bright – were in sync with a particular song’s essence.
The cabaret became most playful, about four songs into the performance. Whitten stopped and spoke directly to the audience asking permission to remove her 4 inch heels. She wanted to get more comfortable. She even cracked a joke about herself. Without her heels, she became a looser being, as did the small house band. With a deep sigh of relief, off came her heels, then a sip of water. She had everyone in her hands. Nice. Very Nice.
Whitten’s song list of Streisand works was a wide mix of emotionally rich ballads with chipper up-tempo jazz, swing and one disco number. They included “People,” “Lover Where Can You Be,” “My Man,” “Children will Listen,” “Everyone Says Don’t,” “Prisoner” (the theme song from The Eyes of Laura Mars), “Happy Days are Here Again,” “Papa Can You Hear Me,” and others. “Don’t Rain on My Parade” was her top-flight encore.
Along with Whitten were Elisa Rosman on piano. Rosman is well-known in Northern Virginia through her musical work with the likes of NextStop Theatre Company and the Reston Community Players to name but two. Rosman made the visible upright piano keyboard come alive. Her entire body resonated with each key she touched. Rosman clearly was enjoying herself; and that added lots of good cheer to the overall performance. This was not just “another” gig for her.
Logan Seith was on drums. In the up-tempo numbers, he pushed a percussive rhythm into each drum stick. In slower numbers his work with brushes added another voice underneath Whitten’s.
For at least three numbers, Whitten was joined on stage for fine duets with Katie McManus, who has been seen and heard at a number of Northern Virginia venues including NextStop and the Reston Community Players. McManus’s voice added delightful close harmonies as well as sensual counter points to Whitten’s delivery. In a nice teasing manner, Whitten chatted about the duets, letting the audience know that McManus would be singing what had been done in real life with Streisand in duets with Judy Garland (“Get Happy”), Celine Dion (“Tell Him”) and Donna Summer (“No More Tears, Enough is Enough”). Impressive group to say the least.
Over the course of the evening, in true cabaret fashion, Whitten chatted about herself and of Streisand. She also thanked Matthew Gardiner, the Associate Artistic Director at Arlington’s Signature Theatre for his long-standing guidance and trust.
As Whitten continues her cabaret work, I do suggest that more personal stories connecting her choice of a particular song will only add to the personal intimacy of an evening. It would also give audiences even more to root for in her artistic work. As an example, when Whitten introduced “Children Will Listen” she spoke deeply from her heart. It was so very honest; giving the iconic song even more power. Oh, and this note, if I may. For some songs, it would be quite lovely to let the audience know who composed and wrote the lyrics or what particular Broadway show the song came from. Then again, this is from a Sondheim lover. Just a quibble though
Now, for some more background on Bayla Whitten if you are not familiar with her. She has won a DCMetroTheaterArts Best of 2014 ‘Best Actress in a Musical’ honor for her role in Metro Stage’s Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. She received a Helen Hayes nomination for her work in that production as well. She has been in a number of Signature Theatre productions such as Elmer Gantry, Beaches, and the Holiday Follies.
Last November she performed an array of Carole King hit songs at three sold-out performance at the JCC of Northern Virginia.
So, if you don’t know Bayla Whitten do keep alert for her. I am sure we will be seeing plenty more of her in local musical theater productions and other cabaret performances. Based upon her work with Bayla Sings Barbra: No Pressure! Bayla Whitten is clearly a wonderfully easy-voiced performer; an assured, poised charmer.
Bayla Sings Barbra played on July 24 and 25, 2015 at Creative Cauldron’s Summer Cabaret Series – 410 South Maple Avenue, in Falls Church, VA. View information on the remaining 2015 Summer Cabaret Series lineup and other productions here.