Review: Brian Stokes Mitchell

This show is both richly emotional and musically intricate and sophisticated, which perfectly serves Brian Stokes Mitchell’s stage persona. It’s also very playful, as it’s title “Plays With Music” suggests. It’s also somewhat lush, augmenting a jazz quartet, led by Ted Firth, with a string quartet.

He opens with “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” with just enough spikiness in the string section to remind you that show biz ain’t always easy. That spikiness was heightened even more, to bracing and funny effect, for the number “Gesticulate” from Kismet, which Stokes put fully over the top with appropriately grand gestures.

The next couple of numbers, sung in a medley, are all about deep feelings coupled with equally deep ambivalence. His version of “By Myself” from The Band Wagon is the grandest I’ve heard this side of Judy Garland’s epic rendition. The other song in the medley, “I Won’t Send Roses” from Mack & Mabel, is about an unromantic man warning someone he’s no prize when it comes to love. Stokes plays it with such precision that every bit of melancholy becomes achingly clear.

For “The Man I Love,” Mitchell touchingly “plays gay,” portraying a lonely guy yearning for love – he gives it an almost adolescent innocence. He follows that up by playing several different characters in Company‘s “Getting Married Today,” including the wigged out bride-not-to-be Amy, who sings some of Sondheim’s fastest, trickiest lyrics, which Stokes dashes of with aplomb.

He wraps the act by taking a turn towards optimistic patriotism, which he sees as an important tonic to the dark forces working in today’s world. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Marilyn Maye

This lady hits the stage like a ball of fire! Ella Fitzgerald once called Marilyn Maye “the greatest white female singer in the world.” That’s no exaggeration; she may be the only singer alive who combines a great vocal instrument with interpretative flair and savoir faire equal to Ella’s own. There are younger singers who might posses more powerful voices but I can think of no other singer who possesses Maye’s combination of interpretive ability, rhythmic verve, and vocal range – at 89, her voice is the envy of singers 50 years her junior.

This “saloon singer” has a fantastic rapport with her audience, singing them beloved songs from a startlingly wide variety of genres. These shows at the Metropolitan Room take full advantage of this facet of her talent. Marilyn asks her audience to pick her “Marilyn By Request” set list by making song suggestions when making their reservations. It makes for an evening filled with surprises, and plenty of energy from both sides of the footlights.

Musical director Ted Firth is the perfect match for this footloose kind of approach, combining a broad knowledge of popular music with snappy, sophisticated jazz chops. Maye exquisitely tailors her style of singing to the individual song, smooth for the ballads, swinging for the standards, and truly gritty for the bluesier numbers. And always, always fully at home in – and totally committed to – the music.

Maye appeared on Johnny Carson’s edition of “The Tonight Show” a total of 76 times, a record not likely ever to be beaten by any other singer with any other host. If you love songs of every kind sung like they’re meant to be sung, it just doesn’t get any better than this.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Paulo Szot

Mr. Showbiz, that’s Paulo Szot! And I mean this as the highest compliment. Many years ago, I saw the operatic baritone’s first New York cabaret show, and it was introspective to the point of being opaque. I mean he never sings less than gorgeously, but in that long ago show he wasn’t what you’d call expressive or lucid. The difference between that and his current show at Feinstein’s / 54 Below could not be more huge. The man who has always been a master musician is now also a master showman, which makes for a massively entertaining show.

The openly gay Szot’s voice is a seductive, luscious instrument, a large part of the reason he won a Tony his first time in a Broadway musical (South Pacific) – by the way, it seems like a serious oversight that he hasn’t been back on Broadway since. He has incredibly solid musical taste, and real wit about the way he uses it. He talks about his fellow Brazilian Antonio Carlos Jobim’s collaborations with Frank Sinatra, and then weaves the single showtune Sinatra and Jobim did together, “Baubles, Bangles and Beads,” into a South Pacific medley.

Speaking of Jobim, much of the evening’s collection of showtunes is performed to bossa nova arrangements, alluding to Szot’s Brazilian background without overdoing it. The absolute high points of this Broadway-centric evening were a reading of Sondheim’s “Being Alive” that is perhaps the most rawly emotion interpretation I’ve ever heard, and the song from South Pacific that has rightly become a signature for Szot, “This Nearly Was Mine.”

Szot is now definitively the total package! So when are we going to get another Broadway appearance, or even some studio albums? Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Lisa Loeb

Singer / songwriter Lisa Loeb may still be best known for the 1994 song that made her famous – “Stay (I Missed You)” from the film Reality Bites – but she has been steadily writing and recording ever since. And she’s utterly charming. Loeb’s stage presence is among the most engaging I’ve seen in a cabaret, and that makes her new show at the Café Carlyle a very enjoyable one indeed.

Loeb’s song catalog seems to have two main registers; first, very sincere and simple songs, including some children’s songs, and, second, more intricate songs that show the influence of the likes of Suzanne Vega. I was surprised to discover that, while I remembered “Stay” as a simple song, it really belongs in the latter more ambitious category, and has really stood the test of time.

About three quarters through the show, after singing “Stay,” Loeb takes requests, and I was interested that the songs were more generally for her more writerly stuff like “Dance with the Angels” and most compellingly “Hurricane” – it’s a matter of personal taste, but I think this is the side of Loeb I enjoy more.

All this is not to say that the simpler side of her repetoire is innately inferior. Indeed, the children’s song “The Dissapointing Pancake” was one of the evening’s highlights. She also does a handful of covers, where she reveals that her charm isn’t limited to between-song talk, but extends to the way she interprets the words of a classic like Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.” Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Antonia Bennett

In the best possible way, Antonia Bennett is musically every bit Tony Bennett’s daughter. She has down cold the kind of laid-back jazz-inflected gently swinging phrasing that her father perfected more than any other artist. If anything, her rhythmic sense is even a touch more sophisticated, which makes her tendency towards bossa nova arrangements so pleasing.

Again like the elder Bennett, Antonia is the furthest thing from musically flashy. She, too, exemplifies the virtues of subtlety, precision and seamless elegance. Her ability to communicate the meaning of a song comes less from anything to do with storytelling or acting, and more from a refined sense of what musicality can express all by itself, be it in the turn of a phrase, a slightly syncopated hesitation or any number of similar things.

Her set list is exclusively from the Great American Songbook, with a strong emphasis on Gershwin. She is ably supported by a skilled jazz trio, whose approach is every bit as subtle and measured as her own.

Bennett shows great musical confidence, and on stage she projects a warm, sweet charm rather than magnetic charisma. This works for the intimate setting of cabaret, though some witty scripted patter and theatrical shaping certainly would give her winsome appeal a better frame. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Chita Rivera

Every time you see Chita Rivera, you learn a lesson about performing. How to make an announcement about your legs with a piece of fabric. How to “make a huge entrance” when you have in fact been discreetly hidden in plain sight on stage for five minutes. In the case of her current cabaret act at the Café Carlyle, I learned why her, Liza Minnelli and other dancers favor sequined pantsuits; they are to dancers’ bodies what orchestrations are to a piano score: they amplify and glorify even the smallest movement. And Chita’s body needs amplification for the movements she makes in the small 2 feet by 4 feet area allowed her on the tiny Carlyle stage.

That said, those sequins are just razzle-dazzle in the service of an already great theatrical presence. She holds nothing back in this act, this diva is cutting loose as only she can. When she sang “Where Am Going” from Sweet Charity, she shed new light for me not only on that song, but on all of Sweet Charity. I understand the song now as an existential awakening for an already worldly woman, and the show as almost as profound as the Fellini film that inspired it.

Chita was always at her best playing “existential musical comedy” and thus became the muse for people with that aesthetic, first Bob Fosse, but then, more deeply, Fred Ebb and John Kander. No shock then that the majority of songs in the show come from a collaboration with either Fosse or Kander & Ebb.

She almost launches into “All That Jazz,” the most spectacular of her many signature Kander & Ebb numbers, at the top of the show. When she finally does it as her finale, it’s more than satisfying, it’s positively gratifying.

Chita never falters. About the worst I can say is that she didn’t sing the entirety of “America” from West Side Story. I am a Leonard Bernstein fanatic, this is his centennial and “America” is one of my most beloved Bernstein songs. Chita sings the hell out of her “America” fragment, leaving someone like me begging for more. But that would be greedy with all the artistic riches on display here. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: John Pizzarelli

This is “too marvelous for words”: John Pizzarelli, top exponent of cabaret’s jazzier side, plays a show composed only of songs written by Johnny Mercer, arguably the greatest lyricist of the Great American Songbook. And, as always, he does it with astonishing elan and profound musical intelligence.

John’s guitar style is amazingly fluid and elegant, with nonpareil mastery of a technique called “guitar harmonics” that produces high notes of extraordinary expressiveness. For Mercer’s “Skylark” he plays an entire melodic line in harmonics, which is not only very unusual (and I’m guessing difficult), but very beautiful and quite evocative of birdsong.

Pizzarelli is also a great interpretive artist in more ways than one. He has a particular genius for chordal improvisations, finding hidden musical meanings in the most familiar of standards. Also, as a singer John is very sensitive to the multiple meanings a good lyric can have, and has an uncanny ability to communicate several at once. Both qualities are ideal when assaying Mercer, whose wit can be very subtle indeed.

It’s not that surprising for Pizzarelli to do a show exclusively devoted to Mercer. His one and only appearance on Broadway was in the highly conceptual Mercer revue Dream (he opens this act with the title song) and he met his wife Jessica Molasky while working on that show. But, hey, it’s also kind of hard to go wrong with an all-Mercer show in any event.

It’s common courtesy in a jazz setting to applaud for a bit after everybody’s solos, and indeed bandleader John frequently points at one of the instrumentalists as if to say “give it up for so-and-so”! More often in this show, though, the onslaught of flashy jazziness is so relentless that you don’t applaud for fear of missing something amazing. Neither jazz nor cabaret gets much better than this.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.