Alex Keiper has emerged as one of Philadelphia’s most versatile and valuable performers in recent seasons, equally adept at drama and musical theater. Her bona fides alone suggest she is both capable and deserving of an Arden Cabaret Series solo set, but in a recent Broad Street Review What's New What's Next profile, she said she doesn’t feel ready to shepherd an entire evening. That Keiper has used her platform to curate an evening of song and stories from Philadelphia’s up-and-coming women and nonbinary artists suggests a strong dedication to the community that has nurtured her for the last decade.
Bringing it on
The selfless mission of Alex Keiper and the New Generation is evident from the start. Keiper initially appears alone, to deliver a pulse-pounding “Don’t Rain on My Parade” so strongly sung and intelligently phrased that local artistic directors should fight over who gets to mount a revival of Funny Girl featuring her. But before she can belt out the first chorus, she allows herself to be interrupted by Ruth and Estelle (Amanda Jill Robinson and Jenna Pinchbeck, respectively), “Philadelphia’s oldest yet newest comedy duo.” The star turn sufficiently interrupted, Keiper invites all the evening’s participants to crowd the Horan Studio Theatre’s small stage, where they turn the remaining verses of Bob Merrill and Jule Styne’s show-stopping solo into a rousing choral number.
Keiper tasks the dozen-plus performers, who range from current college students to semi-established local luminaries, with “saying something you have always wanted to say.” Each participant approaches their number with intelligence, although several standouts instantly emerge. Susanne Collins offers a go-for-broke “Heaven on Their Minds,” full of vocal pyrotechnics and simmering sexuality. Jessica M. Johnson, late of Quintessence’s Uncle Vanya, delivers a rousing rendition of “They Just Keep Moving the Line” (from the television series Smash), briefly sending the frustratingly chatty audience into stunned silence. In a short speech prefacing her number, Johnson speaks of the trepidation she felt moving back to Philadelphia; after a performance like this, her place in the city’s artistic community is assured.
A star is born
The program’s unquestionable discovery is Maggie Johnson, who possesses a voice at once refreshingly pure of tone and full of character. But she is too interesting an artist to rest solely on her vocal estate. Johnson — who identifies as androgynous — caps her contributions here with a moving speech about how redefining her gender presentation affected her burgeoning career. She follows this with a meltingly lyrical interpretation of “Out There” from The Hunchback of Notre Dame that turns the syrupy Disney ballad into an anthem for being seen as you truly are. If this incredible artist doesn’t headline a musical within the next year, it’s probably time for the boards of our local theaters to discuss regime change.
The cabaret’s commitment to diversity, refreshingly, goes beyond lip service. Artists of color and gender-nonconforming artists are well represented; more important, they are never asked to shy away from presenting their truths. Alina John performs a haunting, self-written song about police brutality, mournfully accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. Pax Ressler, who identifies as genderqueer, sings a smoky “Someone to Watch Over Me” in classic cabaret style. Ressler and Bailey Roper, who is gender-nonconforming, also perform an intriguing movement piece set to one of Ressler’s own musical compositions. Freed from her Ruth drag, Robinson repurposes Jerry Herman’s “I Am What I Am” as a folk-tinged ballad of self-discovery.
Keiper intermittently returns to the microphone throughout the evening, but she never seems happier than when standing at the back of the auditorium, cheering on her fellow performers. “The next generation of artists is something we have to cultivate if we want our community to thrive,” she says. Her cabaret proves there’s plenty of talent coming up in Philadelphia.