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The crowd may have been small, but the event space at Beauty and the Bull was full and alive with delightful music presented in the cabaret mode by the experienced and accomplished Ellen Ciompi and her superb keyboardist Glenn Mehrbach.
Located in downtown Durham on East Chapel Street, Beauty and the Bull is one of the elegant establishments springing up all around the Five Points area. Its owner, Holly Douglas, provides a variety of spa and medspa services and a space for special events that oozes with charm and style that reflects her winsome personality. Scrumptious snacks and wine were provided by Vita Restaurant in Erwin Square for this Preservation Durham benefit performance.
The program on this occasion reflects Ciompi’s remarkable knowledge of songs near and far. It was titled “The Songs of Fashion” and it started with an upfront rendition of the Jimmy Van Heusen song, with lyrics by Sammy Cahn, "Style" – “You’ve either got or you haven’t got style.” This song was sung by Sinatra, Martin and Crosby in the film, Robin and the Seven Hoods. What makes this a cabaret show is the singer is much more than a song stylist. She is also a story teller, a dramatist and an emcee employing casual patter to link together the songs into the theme of the evening.
Beginning with fashion; the clothes we wear and the aura we put on to present ourselves to the world, the show moved through selections like “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” from the 1953 musical, Kismet. For a Lady Gaga song on dressing up, Ciompi slipped her feet into an actual pair of LG shoes; how high were those spikes? eight inches? The song said dress me up, I’ll be whatever you want me to be.
One of the show stoppers of the evening was a rollicking performance of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” with Mehrbach rocking the piano with exquisite rhythm. This typically joyful song by Irving Berlin was introduced in the 1930 film that also bears the name of the song. It refers to the classy Ritz Hotel as the ultimate in dressing up.
As the show moved on, it took on the character more of a rumination on how fashion impacts our lives. “I Enjoy Being a Girl” from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song was sung as a very personal affirmation. And, not to ignore the male perspective, “The Man in the Looking Glass” by Bart Howard was sung with the same kind of personal ownership as every other song on the program.
Closing out the evening was an especially moving performance of the 1936 Academy Award winner for best original song, “The Way You Look Tonight.” The audience prevailed on Ciompi to sing one more. From Lerner and Loewe’s Gigi, she sang “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore.”
Cabaret is an intimate and experiential art form shared between artists and audience. Those who were present for this performance left the show with warm feelings, joyful memories and perhaps even a better understanding of the intricacies of how we present ourselves to the world through fashion, image and imagination. Cabaret certainly deserves a larger audience. It’s really not an obligation, but you will be glad and pleased if you make it a personal goal to get to the next performance available in our area.