Cabaret

Ricky Ritzel Sings Elaine Stritch at 54 Below

by Rob Lester



In a cabaret show, to take on the songbook and legacy of the formidable, fearless Elaine Stritch, you'd have to be formidable or fearless yourself—or kind of crazy. Cabaret veteran Ricky Ritzel is all of the above. He also can do a real deadpan look, has timing and survival skills both sharpened by decades in piano bars, a longtime theatre fan's reference points and perspective—and a few built-in layers of sandpaper in his voice. Wild and wacky on the outside, savvy and in control on the inside, he knows what he's doing as an entertainer. A mantleful of cabaret awards attest to this, as do rave reviews and a strong following. When the acerbic, cherubic fellow did his last cabaret solo show, Ingenue, taking on songs introduced by iconic women and commenting on the female in society, he included a couple of Stritch signature numbers. He's bringing his new Stritch treat of a conceit to New York's smash-success nightclub 54 Below, at 254 West 54th Street, for two consecutive Fridays, starting March 15. So ... Beware the Ides of March: I've had a preview, and this show is going to be a wild ride.

Ricky is not one to do a soft-soap, gushy worship presentation idealizing an idol. This is a tribute to the iconoclastic performer, warts and all. "In over 30 years of doing nightclubs and cabaret, I've done 'tribute-ish' shows," he tells me. "One actually was called Tribute. But that honored ten nightclub legends. I've done impersonation shows, like Schnozzola, where I played Jimmy Durante, but never just a show where, as myself, I did songs from one person's catalog." So the obvious question was how this idea came about and came to fruition-and rather quickly. "Why Ricky Ritzel Sings Elaine Stritch?," he smiles. "Well, to be totally honest, you, Rob Lester, are partially to blame. When I read an article you wrote for NiteLifeExchange.com at the end of last year, about tribute shows, it started me thinking, 'If I were going to do a tribute show, who would I choose? ... The answer keeps coming back to Stritch, but I keep dismissing it cause it seems too obvious. Then I kept on thinking—what songs, what stories. The first restriction I gave myself was I would do as few songs as possible from her one-woman show, At Liberty, and absolutely not repeat any of those stories. Having stories was no problem because, as I say in my show, everybody has an Elaine Stritch story. The thing with her stories is none of them I've heard are derogatory. They aren't mean. They're about something she did or said that just is funny! What's fascinating about her is that she lives LARGE. Most people just live, go about their business. People like Stritch, they live. Everything they do is BIG. There are very few people like that."

I've observed this performer for years, and know him to embrace big personalities and those who break the rules and shake up the audience. Bold stripes are his style. When he takes on the role of pianist/musical director, he's attracted to lively, edgy, spirited singers, or the quirky. He's taken on the parody role of a semi-somnambulistic schlock Muzakified ossified lounge act keyboardist as half of the Lounge-O-Leers. Currently, he's working in the long-running, constantly extended Judy Garland/ Liza Minnelli summits performed bewigged and sequined by Tommy Femia and Rick Skye at Don't Tell Mama (where he's been a fixture). He's been doing shows with Alison Nusbaum consisting of songs heard in Mel Brooks's movies. He's a piano-side foil and quipster and straight man in both when needed. He's returning with Las Vegas-style entertainer Rose Bonanza with plenty of razzle-dazzle old-school fun. He's shared the spotlight with many a lady. He recently reunited with partner Spider Saloff of Chicago. He worked regularly with Leslie Anderson in a Johnny Mercer revue that changed each time so that every Mercer song was covered (it resulted in a CD). Then, there were tours with that notorious, foul-mouthed puppet: Madame.

"I can't say I've been 'studying' Elaine Stritch," he comments, when asked how he prepares, "but the songs I'm doing of hers certainly are ones I've loved for years and they are so much fun to do. I put my own mark on them but they belong to Stritch." And he adds: "Let's get this straight. I am not doing an impersonation. I talk about this in the show. Our similarities are obvious: We're both shy, shrinking violet-types," he says, devilishly, for effect. "We were both raised very Catholic. Her uncle was Cardinal Stritch of Chicago and my family was riddled with nuns, priests, archbishops. I don't think any made Cardinal."

Ritzel, longtime Board member and recent President of the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MAC) has indeed met Elaine Stritch. "Oh, yes," he tells me, "A few times. We have had quite a few mutual friends. We were both friends with John Wallowitch and Dixie Carter. I went backstage after At Liberty, and Dixie was there. She said she and Elaine were going to dinner, but I just wanted her to sign my Playbill."

At the Bistro Awards, when Stritch was being honored, "a friend, who was sitting at the same table as Elaine, rushed over and said she was not in a good mood and terrifying the whole table." Someone at Ricky's table who knew Elaine suggested we walk around the room. I might add, Dixie Carter had passed away the day before. We navigated around the room and, suddenly, I found myself face to face with Stritch and my friend says, 'Ricky, You know Elaine.' I just looked at her, a very dark cloud of expression and said, 'Oh, yes, the last time I saw you was with Dixie, who was just as great a lady as you are, Elaine.' Well, the storm clouds parted on that warrior face of hers and she smiled and softly said, 'Thank you'. I was guided back to my seat and after three or four people came up to congratulate my friend on changing Elaine's mood, I realized I had been the whip and my friend, the lion tamer."

Ricky's hopes for these late show events are summed up as follows: "That people show up, have a good time, gain/ deepen their respect for Stritch, and that I do her justice. Such a formidable presence needs a very strong tribute. I just hope I have the strength!" And what if La Stritch appears? "There's a chance she'll show up, in which case I'm sure I'll be corrected on things I get wrong, but after I utter the line '... choosing a hat,' I will put my hand to my ear and expect a certain voice to do the next line. And I'll be in heaven."

The shows are currently scheduled for March 15 and 22 at 11 pm. For more info/reservations, and a video of Ritzel singing a Stritch/Sondheim favorite, see 54Below.com.

See code word in ad at www.NiteLifeExchange.com for $5 discount on cover charge (normally $20 or $30).There is a $25 minimum applicable to food or drink. 54 Below is at 254 West 54 Street in the theatre district.