Dennis McNeil can sing! He has a big, powerful, and trained voice. He has performed with many of the nation’s opera companies, including the Met, New York City Opera, San Francisco Opera, and Los Angeles Opera. He has appeared as Mr. Snow in numerous productions of Carousel and played opposite John Raitt’s Zorba, as Nikos. He has also sung for five U.S. Presidents and other deads of state. As a recording artist he has made seven CDs, his most recent being a collection of Broadway standards titled Center Stage.
So what was such a distinguished artist doing performing a cabaret act at Sterling’s Upstairs at Vitello’s? Well, that is what happens at Sterling’s: people experienced, as well as those just starting out, come there under the auspices of Michael Sterling to try out their acts or to make their virgin outings in cabaret. This was McNeil’s virgin outing in cabaret and he claimed to be very nervous. You couldn’t tell that by his presentation, however, since he is a total professional and made sure he had very strong back-up from his musical director Ed Martel and his consulting director Joe Giamalva, who is experienced in these matters.
OK, so how did it go? Judging from the audience response, he was a smash. The diners at Sterling’s (where they serve delicious food) gave him a standing ovation. You couldn’t help but be swept away by his powerful voice. But voice is not all in cabaret. Cabaret is an animal unto itself and requires certain skills that, frankly, few possess. A performer can’t hide behind a character (even one they invent for the occasion) or behind a voice alone.
McNeil was overly dependent on his voice. His personality was pleasant enough but he needs to work on making the words his own. You don’t have to do that as much with opera, and he seemed most relaxed and did his best when singing songs that used his operatic voice, like “Besame Mucho” and “La Donna e Mobile.” He oversang simple songs like “When You Wish Upon a Star,” “Alfie,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and A House Is Not a Home.”
This is a shame since his softer voice was really really good but he invariably succumbed to the temptation to show his voice. After all, he called his show Me and My Big Mouth. This may seem harsh criticism but he was there to learn and I wouldn’t say these things if I didn’t think he could accomplish his goal of becoming a great cabaret singer. Dennis McNeil appeared at Sterling’s Upstairs at Vitello’s on May 22.