By Stephen Mosher, Broadway World

There are few things as exciting as seeing young people come up through the ranks, learn their craft, and stand on the precipice, ready to take flight, poised for the next great adventure that will take them into the future, thus bringing them into their own. That is probably why people are so emotional at graduations — not because they are proud of the graduate for accomplishing what they have (something about which everyone can be proud), but because they are seeing those young lives as they take a step into a greater consciousness. It’s a rite of passage deserving of the attention it garners… and probably of the tears it gets, too.

The Birdland Theater last night was overflowing with such pride and emotion as eight young talents stepped, one by one, into the spotlight and up to the mic to perform their two solo numbers as they reached their final day with BRIDGING THE GAP, the cabaret teaching course created by Ari Axelrod, now heading into its 8th session. The five-week program designed to train musical theater actors in the art of singing in an intimate setting requiring focus on lyrics and audience connection has become a popular learning institution for artists creating work for themselves away from the theater scene. Each series of classes ends with a group cabaret in which the artists test the water of their newly studied skillset and learn what it is like to perform in an authentic New York City nightclub. It’s an exciting time and opportunity to get a look at the future of cabaret.

Judging from the students in last night’s show at The Birdland Theater, the future of cabaret is in good hands.

With a brief, passionate introduction from Mr. Axelrod, and with the exquisitely talented Mike Stapleton musical directing from behind the piano, the Bridging the Gap Advanced Showcase was an absolute delight, and more than that, for there were times when the show moved up the estimation ladder to become inspiring and thrilling. The eight singing actors all appear to be ready to move to the next level of creating their first solo cabaret show, which Axelrod informed was the 2020 goal for each of the performers. With the two songs intended for their solo shows, the artists gave the audience a taste of what those shows will be like, and it was very clear in which direction each of the artists is going. Perhaps one of them will write an act about the loves of their lives, while another intends to create a tribute show to a special time in their history; one of them may plan on a show of sexy jazzy arrangements, while another will focus on comedy numbers. Whatever form their debut cabaret shows will take, there is no question about the quality, for these eight actors have been trained by experts, and it shows.

For instance, Kazue Kiyono chooses, wisely, to sing lyrical melodies that fit her rich, full voice in a place allowing her to dreamily showcase unexpected high notes as she advises people that “happiness is a choice,” while Caitlin Rose boldly goes the yin/yang route by juxtaposing “Murder! He says” with a “Both Sides Now” only bested by Joni Mitchellherself. Allen Berryman takes great care to connect to his audience by looking into individual faces during his two-ballad set, one in which he mentions beloved personal relations to whom he relates a song, while Sicily Mathenia brings in a fully prepared set with expository dialogue before one song and interspersed throughout the second. Gabriella Moscoso dresses for success, proving she is ready to hit that stage, before exhibiting her range by performing two completely different styles and rhythms of music, an astute choice also made by Michael McClain, and with her slick, glamorous mood and his laidback, approachable vibe, both actors open up their arms and welcome an infatuated audience to their fanbase. Alyssa Muniz doesn’t just show up to a gig with her A-game, she brings her sax-playing husband with her, while Corinne MacLean brings her diary and her insane individuality to the table, and both women emerge as the students of Bridging The Gap who could open their shows tomorrow, were they ready to go. All of Mr. Axelrod’s students are singers and actors worthy of the careers for which they are training, for they have the talent and, thanks to him, they have the training. The big question is: do they have the drive? One suspects they do, as they, clearly, have the heart.

It must be said that, as with talent, the range of nervousness visible on the stage at The Birdland Theater was varied, and well it should be. Nerves will always be different, from actor to actor, and nerves are important – nerves are the respect actors pay their audience. It would be best for these young people (for any performer, really) to remember these few facts: The audience is not out to get you, so don’t be scared. They want you to do well – being scared is counterproductive. If you get nervous, use the energy to fuel yourself. When emotion hits, use it, don’t shy away from it – authenticity is key in cabaret, and if you feel it, go with it. When any actor, singing or otherwise, forgets their words it is because they are in the moment and the character they are playing doesn’t know what to say next. Work with it. Individuality abounds. Be prepared for anything.

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