Don’t Tell Mama
Big hair. Big colors. Big money.
It’s a high bar.
Going into the show, I had some skepticism as to how the nuances of the 1980s would translate in the small and personal space at Don’t Tell Mama’s in New York City. With small cabaret tables, intimate seating, warm lighting, and an elementary sound system, it was hard to imagine how the big personality of the 1980s could be well conveyed in this space.
Natasha and her team managed to pull it off.
The show began with a solid introduction of a vaguely familiar tune, with the lighting reflecting the anticipation. Natasha emerged from the back of the performance space and made her way through the audience singing “Magic,” a song made famous in the early 1980s by Olivia Newton-John. Almost greeting her audience members in song, Natasha appears to invite us all to suspend the stresses and anxieties of the current day and join her on her journey back to the fun and magic of the 80s. Enmeshing the Lionel Richie hit “All Night Long” into her opening number, Natasha sets the party atmosphere. The mood is punctuated by the surprise use of disco lights and a hostess that channels the most colorful and playful aspects of the era in both her outfit and her charm. In addition, Natasha’s attention to detail by including glow light sticks on the tables and on the piano contributed to the personality of the moment.
The only catch: this isn’t an 80s story we are all expecting, nor is it one that we would be able to predict. This is Natasha’s 80s story – and she establishes early on with much facility the construct of her experience: a family that hails from Southeast Asia emigrates to New York City. We experience the 80s through the eyes of the middle daughter navigating her love for music, movies, and exploration as she approximates her teenage years. An emotional rendition of Dennis DeYoung’s “The Best of Times”, a bluesy interpretation of Prince’s iconic “1999” and a uniquely personal arrangement of Robert Hazard’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” add emotion and levity to the vision of a young girl navigating both pop culture and life with her parents. The arrangements allowed for the lyrics to be more present and to allow the story to be driven by Natasha rather than by the familiarity of the music.
Natasha demonstrates easily a command of this message arc that far exceeds her storytelling capacities in her previous shows. It is very clear that since her debut show in 2012, Natasha has developed stronger skills in her ability to convey a message and take the audience on her journey. Her ability to engage and relate her experiences was so palpable that we could feel Natasha’s emotion in experiencing love for the first time and her excitement of rustling through the newspaper to find a movie she was going to see with her older sister. Natasha possesses an enchanting charm that she uses to ensure that you stay with her through her party of nostalgia.
Musically, Natasha displays enormous growth compared to previous stage performances. Her capacities with material that is vocally demanding is much improved, with a silkiness to her singing that was not apparent in previous shows. She handled the key change in Per Gessle and Mats Persson’s “Listen to Your Heart” with strength and fortitude, and she displayed vocal gymnastics throughout her performance that simply was not in her skillset before this time. Her charm and ability to convey a message notwithstanding, Natasha has clearly worked hard on her instrument to enable mastery of musically challenging material. Additionally, Natasha displayed a facility with the music such that she was able to concurrently encourage participation from the audience. A quick perusal of audience members showed people singing along, bopping to the music, and moving freely within their seats. Kenny Loggins and Dean Pitchford’s “Footloose” had everyone dancing along, and the audience was involved and clapping – albeit out of rhythm – for Toni Basil’s “Mickey”. There was a point during Emilio and Gloria Estefan’s “Rhythm is Gonna Get You” where Natasha engaged in a period of call-and-response. The audience complied happily – everyone was present, involved, and having fun – just as Natasha set the stage for us to be.
Multi-award-winning Lennie Watts, who is a master at reinventions and unexpected arrangements, directed this run and his creative interpretation was apparent throughout. His influence is also obvious in Natasha’s acting during the songs. It’s likely that it was Lennie’s fine hand in facilitating Natasha’s personification of Madonna in “Like a Prayer” and Michael Jackson in “Beat It”. The resulting performance was charming and reverential.
A strong and talented band provided the backdrop for the music. Matt Scharfglass (bass) and Don Kelly (drums) built a strong rhythm section and vocals were made more resonant with the background vocals of Karen Mack. But it was multi-award-winning Tracey Stark as musical director (keys, background vocals) whose expertise allowed the music to pop, shine and take stage alongside Natasha. True talent.
As a child of the 80s myself, I appreciated the familiarity of the songs and the surprising arrangements that emphasized lyrical strength. But I would be amiss if I didn’t say that I missed the guitar riffs that are intrinsic in the era. The iconic tones of Richie Sambora (Bon Jovi), Eddie Ojeda (Twisted Sister), Eddie Van Halen (who performed the guitar solo in Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”), and of course, Prince were palpably absent. Despite the revisionist nature of many of the tunes, I felt myself yearning for some shredding.
A few hiccups existed in research and accuracy. In a medley of “one-hit wonders”, Jack Wagner’s “All I Need” was an understandable oversight. Those who are not die-hard “General Hospital” fans may not realize that Wagner had another hit in “Weatherman Says” and was not a one-hit-wonder artist. However, a glaring error in inclusion within this medley was Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” The anthem rock hit was matched by the band’s other anthemic hit “I Wanna Rock” as well as “The Price” and “You Can’t Stop Rock n Roll,” all of which were charted in the 1980s. Accuracy notwithstanding, the message of Twisted Sister is a good one to hear, especially with the current level of environmental chaos.
The night ended with a poignant version of Jorn-Uwe Fahrenkrog-Peterson & Kevin McAlea’s “99 Red Balloons”. The original version “99 Luft Balloons” was sung in German, and Natasha put her own spin on the bilingual nature of the song by singing it partially in Mandarin. Thus, the arc of the story is completed: a bilingual young girl in the 80s bridges communication with her parents and communication with her sisters and peers with innocence, hope, and wonder. In a current world that is channeling some of the chilling aspects of the 80s – a strange and scary virus, economic instability, and the threat of nuclear war – it was comforting to have a reminder of the concepts that helped build our country and the hope and faith that is intrinsic in all of it. Maybe – just maybe – if we focus on the sky, we can all grab one of Natasha’s 99 red balloons and float alongside each other with the same charm, hope, and faith that which she embodies.
343 W 46th St (between 8th & 9th Ave)
New York, NY 10036
212-757-0788 (after 4:00PM)
Natasha Castillo performs Let It Go / Frozen