I can understand if someone attending the August 14 show at The Cabaret expecting a then-I-was-in-this/then-I-was-in-that string of B’way tunes was confused. Or even disappointed.
After all, Andre De Shields is a theater legend, having starred of a string of shows from “The Wiz’” to “Hadestown,” including stops at “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “The Full Monty” in between.
But for those, a look at the show’s subtitle, “A Musical Meditation On How NOT To Be Eaten By The Sphinx,” would have been helpful. While hit-parade shows are a staple of cabaret, more innovative, experimental approaches to this intimate art are offered by some performers such as De Shields
Strike that. I can’t think of another artist quite like De Shields.
Rather than hearing from his Broadway characters, audiences at The Cabaret heard from the man himself in a show backed by kick-ass piano and percussion combo and fronted by an open heart.
Three supporting singers (Freida Williams, Lori Tishfield, Kimberly Marable) launched the show by weaving their way through the audience, gloriously dressed and with parasols at full mast, setting the tone for De Shields’ arrival from the back of the house.
Instead of “Big Black Man” from “The Full Monty” or “The Viper’s Drag” from “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” the 75-year-old force of nature offered “None of Us are Free,” transforming the Weill/Mann/Russell song previously covered by Ray Charles and Solomon Burke into a mantra and a thesis statement for the evening. “None of us are free if one of us is chained,” he repeated, making clear not only the message, but inviting us to become his congregation.
There was plenty of music to be heard, but much of it was evocative backing in support of De Shield’s poetic wordscapes. The “NOT eaten by the Sphinx” subtitle, he explained, referred to the crossroads that we will all face at some point in our lives, where we have to decide who we are. The right answer to its riddle moves us forward. The wrong answer, well…
The message blended beautifully into “Shambala,” the Three Dog Night hit from 1973 with the repeated question, “How does your light shine?” Via De Shields’ wonderfully varied voice, it became a direct question to the audience. Again, repetition led to resonance.
Fresh wine was also poured into the oldies bottles of “Takin’ It To the Streets” and “People Get Ready.” Each song felt like a new discovery, although I’m still not sure what to make of De Shields’ composite composition that somehow connected bits of, if memory serves, “I’m So Excited,” “Mashed Potato Time,” “Wake Up Little Susie,” “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now),” “War (What is It Good For?),” and the kids’ street rhyme “Miss Mary Mack,” among many others. Blurring boundaries between genres and eras while removing the idea of “song,” it was fused instead into I don’t quite know what except that it was magical (Even though I didn’t quite get how it led to a litany of right-wing politicians. Those names provoked jeers from some in the audience, but I could also sense others tense up. Those folks might need better GPS to find the road to Shambala).
De Shields gave himself a lengthy break mid-show, allowing his “Queens” some spotlight time. Here, the torchy “The Tragic Mulatto” had more of an impact than a spoken-word-poetry piece about hair and self-worth, which went on a bit long but did end with a joyful reveal. Both, I learned later, were penned by De Shields.
The half man/half Cadillac (his words), returned in a star-spangled suit with more of his own compositions. Interspersed, and often dominating the program, were reminders of our shared struggles. This isn’t the first pandemic we have suffered, he said, noting that he lost 200 friends to AIDS and is an HIV survivor himself.
In an initially baffling but ultimately powerful bit of programming structure, as the show seemed to be coming to an end, De Shields left the stage, turning it over to Freida Williams for a stirring “Say You Love Me” as her fellow Queens left the stage as gracefully as they had entered.
As they were exiting through the house, though, De Shields returned to center stage.
This time, he did not use his own words, instead, invoking George Floyd and so many others with the words “I cannot breathe.”
Then he was gone.
No curtain call. No encore.
Just an empty stage.
Leaving an audience a little better prepared for the Sphinx’s riddle.