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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

It's Very Clear that
Christine Ebersole is Here to Stay

Also see Bob's review of Place Setting

Christine Ebersole and Billy Stritch at NJPAC
Christine Ebersole
Sunday night, to the surprise of no one, Christine Ebersole received the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical on the stage of Radio City Music Hall for her acclaimed performance in Grey Gardens.  After all, the Times' Ben Brantley had proclaimed her performance in the dual roles of Edith Bouvier Beale and "Little" Edie Beale as quite possibly the best ever given by any actress on the Broadway musical stage. However, let me take you back to the previous Sunday night when, thanks to the perspicacity of those responsible for its outstanding Cabaret series, Ebersole was in New Jersey delighting audiences with two performances of her cabaret show, In Your Dreams in the lovely Chase Room of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.

If you have seen Ebersole's highly theatrical recreation of the sad, eccentric ladies of East Hampton and not previously encountered her in cabaret, you are likely to be quite surprised by her approach here.  Despite the strong and secure voice with which she has been blessed, there is nothing of the diva in her performance.  For the most part, Ebersole concentrates on a relaxed, smooth and lilting jazz club approach.  With her innate musicality, supple vocalization and easygoing warmth, the result is very pleasing and convivial.

Generously, but appropriately, Ebersole shares equal program billing with her pianist, arranger and backup vocalist, Billy Stritch. Stritch appeared with her in the 2001 Broadway revival of 42nd Street.  Here he leads a trio (Steve Doyle on bass and Tony Tedesco on drums) which he also gets to lead in his own vocal, as well as instrumental, numbers.  It is the stylings of the Stritch trio around which Ebersole has built her performance.  This is not a themed show and its title In Your Dreams doesn't carry any resonance.  The "theme" here is simply the music.  Whereas this reviewer feels that theatrical cabaret performances  require a discernable thematic unity,  Ebersole's emphasis on supple, cool jazz provides all the ballast needed here.  The show bears the same title as a CD which Ebersole and Stritch have released, but only about six (including a medley by Ebersole) of the eighteen numbers are holdovers from that recording.

There is a relaxed camaraderie between Ebersole and Stritch.  Although most of the repartee is written and  rehearsed, it is all presented with a loose ease which suggests that it is employed with a degree of flexibility.  Last week, Stritch pulled out that very day's Sunday Times magazine to display the laudatory feature article on Ebersole, leading to one of any number of  impromptu exchanges.

"Baby, Dream Your  Dream" and a jazz version of "My Favorite Things" were among Ebersole's initial selections.  An upbeat, jazzy start gave way to a romantic balladic reading of "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top."  Upbeat stylings marked "Sunday in New York," "Give Me the Simple Life" and  a swinging Nat "King" Cole trio number,  "Hit that Jive, Jack."  Apparently, Stritch accidentally switched keys while playing "Sunday in New York," and the relaxed and open banter which he and Ebersole exchanged at its conclusion revealed the confidence and ease with which they collaborate with each other and their audience.

Stritch delightfully sang and played "Walkin' My Baby Back Home."   During the trio's "We're in the Money," Tony Tedesco's superlative drum solo provided one of the evening's highlights.   Also from the well-represented Harry Warren 42nd Street catalogue were Ebersole's pensive rendition of its title song, her lilting "You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me," and her gentle "Tea for Two," which she sang in tandem with "Give Me the Simple Life."

Ebersole wore an attractive, knee-length black cocktail dress with a matching sequined shawl.  Appropriately, she reserved her most dramatic lyric reading for her melodic and  plaintive Grey Gardens first act finale, "Will You?."

Christine Ebersole tells us that she returned to New York and the theatre after movie and TV roles dried up, and her agent had told her that the reason was that she had gotten "too old."  The success with which she has rejuvenated her career makes it apparent that the determined performer has the stuff for the long haul.  This is clearly evident in her cabaret performance.  It is centered around a rich, supple, smooth, jazzy vocal style which wears well and will keep loyal audiences coming back for more.

Christine Ebersole and Billy Stritch: In Your Dreams  cabaret presentation on Sunday June 3, 2007 at 7:30 PM and 9:30 pm in the Chase Room of the New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts (NJPAC), One Center Street, Newark, NJ 07102. Box Office: 888-466-5722; online www.njpac.org/.

 


Be sure to Check the current schedule for theatre in New Jersey


- Bob Rendell



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