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Passing the Torch Songs

Valley Life | SPOTLIGHT

November 05, 1999|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN

Peisha McPhee has inherited the rich tradition of cabaret from mentor Julie Wilson, whose own mentor was the tragic Billie Holiday. Indeed, when Lady Day died, Wilson began to wear Holiday's signature gardenia in her hair.

Like Rosemary Clooney, Margaret Whiting and the other cabaret singers of legend, McPhee can make you laugh, make you cry and make you feel like she's singing just for you.

Cabaret is one-on-one entertainment, intimate, not epic, and McPhee teaches its mysteries to some 70 students each week, often working in the studio behind her handsome Spanish-style home in Sherman Oaks.

Not long ago, a dozen students listened one night as she told them about a recent visit from Wilson, the woman who owns the cabaret in New York's Algonquin Hotel as surely as Bobby Short owns the Carlyle.

"I consider her my creative mother," McPhee says of Wilson, now in her 70s.

Not long ago, Wilson explained the essence of cabaret to an interviewer in Chicago.

"The older one becomes, the more experiences you go through in life, the more love you have and loved ones you lose, the more you can bring to a song," Wilson said. "I always look at a song as a small play, with a beginning, middle and end. And it's the singer who brings the colors, the variety, the spice."

"I feel that she's passing the torch to me, and I'm passing the torch to my students," says McPhee, who begins a five-day run Tuesday at the Cinegrill in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The Roosevelt is a venue with great ghosts, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, who regularly embarrassed himself in the bar. The Cinegrill is the perfect room for a woman who can shamelessly manipulate your emotions, while looking smashing in a low-cut dress.

The notion that cabaret is almost exclusively a New York City phenomenon is belied by the number and enthusiasm of McPhee's students.

Aged 14 to 90, male and female, the students come to McPhee and her teaching partner and musical director, Mel Dangcil, to learn how to keep an audience rapt with nothing more than their musicality, their acting skills and a repertoire that is as witty, moving and sexy as people like Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Stephen Sondheim could make it.

Like Wilson, McPhee believes cabaret is as much about acting as about voice. In class, students discuss subtext as well as key, how to relate to the microphone as well as how to make their voices blend with the other instruments onstage.

Arguably more sophisticated, the cabaret repertoire catalogs dysfunction as thoroughly as the hurtin' music of Nashville. Suffering is what fuels many of these songs, as a McPhee student demonstrates when she announces, "This next one is for all those guys who didn't love me," before launching into "Cry Me a River." Another asks the musical question, in a lovely ballad of her own devising, "My sweet Montana boy, why must you have a wife?"

Does your heart have to have been stomped on in order to sing cabaret? After all, McPhee's life is as wholesome as many of her fellow singers' lives were sad and sordid. For the last 18 years, she has been happily married to Dan McPhee, a producer for Dick Clark, and they have two talented daughters, Adriana and Katharine, now in high school.

"As an actor, I have to find my loss, I have to find my bitterness," in order to sing certain songs, she says. "I use my pain, I use my suffering and I use other people's suffering in my work."

In this class, many of the students are underemployed actors who know that being able to sell a song is an effective way to sell themselves in an audition.

Their day jobs vary, from schoolteacher to dog groomer.

A publicist for MTV comes here to de-stress by learning how to belt out "Hey, Big Spender" and "Come Rain or Come Shine." A genetic researcher says he is mastering the delivery of show-stopping tunes like "This Is the Moment" on a self-imposed dare.

"I'm in the oldest profession," one woman quips. "I'm a waitress."

Baptized Patricia and renamed Peisha by an older sister, McPhee is a person who says "blessed" a lot and means it. There is a spiritual dimension to her work, she says, a view she shares with a former student, spiritual advisor Marianne Williamson. Early on in the course, students share their personal stories. Often they are tales of psychological and even physical abuse.

"A lot of times people have been told when they were children or along the way that they couldn't do something or couldn't believe in their dream," McPhee says. Facing their fears, blocks and insecurities over a Cole Porter score can be the best medicine.

The students' courage takes your breath away.

A bookkeeper by day, Susan Seal pushes her comfort level by performing Stephen Sondheim's demanding "Losing My Mind" from "Follies." McPhee confides, "We tell them if you're going to do Sondheim, you better know what you're doing because Sondheim is the Bible to us."

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