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CABARET REVIEW : 4 Girls 4 Ensemble Balances Nostalgia With Modern Sounds

Gathering four headline entertainers on the same stage can be a formula for creative chaos. But 4 Girls 4, a concert ensemble that currently includes Margaret Whiting, Helen O’Connell, Kaye Ballard and Kay Starr, has been managing for nearly a decade to produce pleasantly nostalgic musical programs while avoiding (on stage, at least) the hazards of all-star ego trips.

Sunday night’s program at the Orange County Performing Arts Center introduced singer-comedienne Kaye Ballard as a replacement for founding member Rose Marie, who has left the quartet due to health considerations. Despite having to read from a lyric page for the quartet’s only ensemble number, Ballard filled the comedy slot with style, grace and good humor.

Her unrelentingly contemporary point of view in fact added a jolt of up-to-date spice to a program that might otherwise have become mired in its own reminiscences. Numbers like “My Son, the Stripper” and “Don’t Ask a Lady” combined with Ballard’s devastatingly pointed impressions (of everyone from Joan Crawford to Nancy Reagan) to give 4 Girls 4 an energy it has not always had in the past.

In contrast, singer Margaret Whiting’s set had the cool and detached quality of another day at the office. She sang the obligatory “Moonlight in Vermont” and “That Old Black Magic” with the musically articulate phrasing that always has been her trademark. But she seemed far less involved in the performance than she does in her solo cabaret turns.

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Helen O’Connell--the most idiosyncratic performer of the group--once again sang with the quirky accents, sliding pitch and rushed phrases that made her so unique in her salad years with the Jimmy Dorsey Band. The hits--"Amapola,” “Green Eyes” and “Tangerine"--were handled nicely in a crowd-pleasing medley. Interestingly, however, O’Connell hit her musical peak with an insightful performance of the far more contemporary “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?”

Kay Starr’s set was a reprise of the program she has been using in most of her performances, solo and otherwise, for the last few years. An important figure in the rock-defining music of the ‘50s, Starr has lost none of the bite in the gospel-tinged, rhythm-and-blues-styled phrasing that characterized her early work.

Her singing on “Side by Side,” “Wheel of Fortune” and “Hallelujah, I Love Him So” was--like much of the entire evening with 4 Girls 4--vigorous testimony to the fact that some pop music styles don’t just fade away.

The 4 Girls 4 performance will be repeated tonight and Wednesday at the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena.

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