Live Active Cultures 

It's a frigid Friday night in the city. The clouds above are as dark as the asphalt below; tomorrow morning might see snow, or at least stinging sleet. But the icy temperatures don't seem to be deterring anyone, and street parking is in short supply, as ever. After shivering and stomping several blocks, past the misted windows of a crowded corner coffeehouse and a must-be-crazy-to-be-out-in-this-weather street musician, the theater marquee comes into view.

A knot of disappointed seat-seekers form an obstacle course around the entrance — "Sure hope you've got reservations!" — but we navigate past and fortunately find an envelope with my name on it at the podium. The show is about to start, and every candle-topped cocktail table and cushy couch seat in the little lounge is occupied. We squeeze into a sliver of standing room alongside the marble and stained-glass bar. Piano keys tinkle, the audience murmurs, and a beautiful woman steps up to the microphone.

Is there anything quite like a Manhattan cabaret?

OK, I confess, I didn't slip away for a New Year's trip to New York. But I did get a bite of the Big Apple without enduring a single TSA body scan or cavity search. Last weekend, a wee wedge of West 46th Street worked its way down here (climate included) with the help of the Winter Park Playhouse. That recently expanded stage inaugurated its new lobby bar by hosting a two-nights-only performance by a much-missed Orlando performer: Natalie Cordone, who's temporarily returned from her New York sojourn and is sharing her talents with us while she's in town. You may remember Natalie from her several seasons with the former Orlando Opera Company (her "Old Lady" was a highlight of 2007's Candide) and many years in theaters like Mad Cow (The Fantasticks) and Jester Theater Company (Fives, The Musical of Musicals `the Musical!`).

I first got to know Natalie as part of the absurdly overqualified cast of an ill-fated dinner theater we worked for; I knew back then she was way too talented to be dancing bad choreography to Taylor Dayne for drunk tourists. Fortunately for her, she got her MFA from UCF a few years back and escaped north. Fortunately for us, she hasn't forgotten her friends. When she secured a sought-after spot on the calendar of Don't Tell Mama, the landmark midtown piano bar, her first call was to the Winter Park Playhouse, where she had performed in The Roar of the Greasepaint — The Smell of the Crowd and A Grand Night for Singing. Her plea was for a place to host a pre-New York preview of Everybody's Girl, the cabaret she's constructed with Chris Leavy, her musical director and pianist ("and he makes a mean meat loaf"). The end result was that evening's oversold audience.

Cordone kicked off Act 1 with a gushing thanks to her friends and family, then solemnly said, "Now for the very dignified beginning," and launched into a lovely rendition of "Not for the Life of Me" (Thoroughly Modern Millie). That was followed by "Many a New Day" (Oklahoma), "Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?" (Cinderella) — "dedicated to casting agents everywhere" — and an aria from George Bizet's Carmen, instant evidence of Cordone's incredible range and flexibility. Vocally, in a beat she can shift from a sweet musical-theater whisper to a stunning operatic vibrato. She skips through tongue-twisters like "If You Hadn't But You Did" (1951's Two on the Aisle) and barely breaks a sweat; by the end of "The Girl in 14G," popularized by Kristin Chenoweth, you've completely forgotten about Ms. Pushing Daisies. And no one can sell a song with her eyes — be it sappy, silly, soulful or (as in the namesake number) slutty — like she can, because her emoting always feels honest.

Between songs, Natalie told tales about life in the "big city," auditioning as an "ingénue" in competition with 16-year-olds willing to sleep outside in lawn chairs waiting on line for a chance at a role. She shared stories of embarrassing gigs involving bathing suits, Carmen Miranda fruit hats and Elvis-servicing prostitutes strapped to moving vehicles (don't ask), then coming home to a lonely apartment with thin walls and "neighbors who are having more fun than you." Her patter was charmingly personal but could stand some pruning in preparation for a New York audience that isn't stacked with acquaintances. But whether you knew Natalie before or not, by the time she ended her encore of "Over the Rainbow" (dedicated to Mom, sitting center), you were on your feet and wiping your eyes.

You missed the cabaret, but you can see Natalie at the Winter Park Playhouse in Married Alive! (Jan. 29-Feb. 14), a four-actor musical comedy "journey from Niagara to Viagra," before she returns to New York.


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