Ben Dibble might be as fine a cabaret performer as anyone in that field. He demonstrated that with the presentation of Are We There Yet? Just a Little Father(hood Cabaret), produced by the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia.
Many excellent singers have failed in their attempts at that delicate art. Cabaret demands naturalism, which requires a scaling down from singers’ usual performing style. Dibble has a rich baritone voice with exceptional high range, but he doesn’t show it off. Rather, he concentrates on the words and makes you feel the emotion that’s behind the lyric. He put his vocal skill into the service of telling musical stories.
People with acting backgrounds can have problems when they appear in cabaret, because they’re used to assuming disguises as they play various parts, and here they need to reveal their own lives.
Dibble is well-known for his work in theater. He is the winner of Barrymore Awards as outstanding leading actor in Parade and Herringbone, and he also impressed mightily as Candide and Bat Boy and in the non-musical leading roles in Henry V and Harvey.
In this creation he transcended the limitations of that profession. He chose a theme of family life — his parents, his courtship and marriage, and his fathering of three children who now range in age from 8 to 11. Telling stories about his interaction with each of them, and tying that narrative to specific songs, he achieved a rare meshing of words and music.
The title is too limiting for what Dibble actually revealed. It barely hints at the expansive recounting of his home life and the influence of his father, who starred in community musical productions. Ben’s performance built dramatically, had a compelling arc, and then came full circle with a shattering revelation about his father.
We saw a combination of Ben’s family with show-biz, because his dad was a sometime performer, his wife is a theater professional, and their kids are theatrically savvy with backstage stories of their own. Therefore we heard lots of informative details about the lives of people who are in the entertainment field.
Intimacy is cabaret’s essential ingredient. Before entering a cabaret, you may have been alone, or shoved together with busy people. But when you sit in a small room, at a table with friends who share a common interest, you feel closer with your partner, your friends, and your feelings. Dibble here engendered that feeling as he seemed to be addressing each individual confidentially.
In a generous offering of 24 songs, Dibble ranged from Lerner & Loewe to Billy Joel, Stephen Sondheim to Queen. There was ample humor mixed with romance and nostalgia. After speaking about seeing his dad in Brigadoon he sang two ballads from that show.
He recalled one of the lullabies he sang to his kids when they were young, “The Second Star to the Right” by Sammy Fain and Sammy Cahn from the movie version of Peter Pan: “The second star to the right / Shines in the night for you / To tell you that the dreams you plan / Really can come true.”
He performed a medley of coffee songs, including “Java Jive”, “Coffee Break” by Frank Loesser, “Cigarettes and Coffee” by Otis Redding, and “Taylor the Latte Boy” which Kristin Chenoweth made popular – an ode to flirting with a barista at Starbucks. By omitting the boy’s name in that song’s lyric and instead singing “Give me that latte boy,” Dibble changed it into a friendly, non-sexual paean to his coffee-drinking habit.
“Giants in the Sky” by Sondheim, from Into the Woods, recalled the show in which Dibble made his debut at the Arden in 2000 as Jack. That’s when he met his future wife, Amy Dugas Brown, who was associate artistic director of the Arden. Their atypical courtship was wittily recounted.
“This Is Not Over Yet” by Jason Robert Brown from Parade reminded us of one of Dibble’s most vivid stage roles. He re-worked “9 to 5″ by Dolly Parton to tell the story of theater people who sleep late and toil 5 to 9 or 11 PM. This was one of many examples of Dibble and his wife (now professor in the theater department at the University of the Arts) writing new words to give fresh interpretations to familiar tunes.
The closing medley was well-chosen, with proper attention to words — “If I Sing” by Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire from Closer Than Ever: “If I fly, you’re why I’m good…If I sing, you are the music.” Then “How It Ends” by Andrew Lippa from Big Fish: “It ends with sons / It ends with wives / It ends with knowing when the pavement bends we find our lives / It ends with love.”
Dibble had superb accompaniment by pianist Dan Kazemi and guitarist Nero Catelano.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Ben Dibble gave his final performance in the Arden Cabaret Series on March 18, 2017. The series is performed at the Arden Theatre’s Hamilton Family Arts Center – 62 North Second Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets to future shows, call the box office at (215) 922-1122, or purchase them online.