NJPAC Coup: Craig Carnelia in Performance
For this reviewer, the crème de le crème of cabaret is that which most obliterates the line between cabaret and theatre without losing the sense of intimacy, which is at the heart of cabaret. There are only a small handful of performers out there who are capable of achieving this level of performance. To the delight of the packed crowd at the Chase Room at NJPAC in Newark on Saturday night, gifted composer-lyricist-actor-musician Craig Carnelia demonstrated that he is one of them.
In what surely must be considered a coup for the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Carnelia, who had not given a solo performance in seven years, returned to the cabaret stage in its elegantly appointed Chase Room (a facility similar in size and accoutrement to Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse). A large window at the rear of the stage offered a view of the nighttime Newark skyline which is both pleasing and impressive. Of particular importance was the excellent, totally unobtrusive sound system.
Accompanying himself on the piano (with the exception of the few occasions when he shifted to the guitar), Carnelia presented a generous 90 minute program of his own compositions. Performing the intimate character songs which comprise the greater part of his repertoire in a clear, smooth, quietly intense manner, Carnelia drew every nuance of feeling from his lyrics without adding any extraneous embellishment. Although his songs derive from a variety of inspirations, they achieve a satisfying unity by projecting a feeling of simple honesty.
Of course, it requires great artistry to convey this feeling, a hallmark of Craig Carnelia as both writer and performer. There is a unique sound and style to a Craig Carnelia melody which is as engaging as it is deceptively simple. A musician could surely describe the musical devices which he employs. As to his lyrics, it seems clear that underlining the artistry of his lyrics is an honest and loving heart.
Every Carnelia song is an intimate short story or one act play which takes us into the world of its protagonist, providing us with insights into hearts and minds, and engaging our emotions. We are enriched by experiencing them.
The program was planned with great intelligence. The opening song “Cast of Thousands” (Three Postcards), which as Carnelia reminds us is not autobiographical in its factual details, none the less feels autobiographical and prepared us for an evening of songs which are both introspective and deeply aware of the importance of the lives of those around us. The joy, wonder and appreciation with which Carnelia perceives the nature of “Life on Earth” further sets the tone.
Carnelia then looked at the lives of ordinary older Americans in two of his beautiful songs from Working, “The Mason” and “Joe.” As sung by Carnelia, the latter in its quiet and subtle way is as devastating a commentary on the emptiness which can come with old age as any in our literature.
Amidst the music, Carnelia provided us with a delightful running commentary about the songs and where they fit into his life. In doing this, he was able to weave an arresting self portrait.
Next up was the lovely “Cowboys” (from the still evolving Actor, Lawyer, Indian Chief) which, as Carnelia told his audience, now put him in mind of firemen. It was followed by the poignant “You Can Keep the TV” describing a situation which he would only have to face long after its writing.
Carnelia then performed a set of songs from Is There Life After High School?, concluding with a “full production number” of “Thousands of Trumpets.” Okay, it was just Craig Carnelia and his piano, but with his interspersed prose description of his experiences as a high school band member, his aggressive piano solos, and his vocal effects and animated movement, one’s mind’s eye could see an entire panoply. Great theatre, great cabaret.
Guest artist Lisa Asher then sang a heartfelt “Just a Housewife” (Working), dueted with Carnelia on “Looking West” (Actor, Lawyer ...), and concluded her set with a lovely rendition of the brilliantly evocative “Picture in the Hall” (Three Postcards), accompanied on the piano by Jeff Waxman (enquiring minds may want to know that Lisa and Jeff are married). The Waxmans then both joined with Carnelia for “Come On Snow!,” a lighthearted and delightful coda to this segment of the evening.
Carnelia then sang four songs (with music by Marvin Hamlisch) whose lyrics he had written for the Broadway productions Sweet Smell of Success and Imaginary Friends.
In a warm and moving final segment, Carnelia sang four “personal” songs, sharing with his audience events in his life which he assured us have led him to his greatest happiness. The final two songs were “Lisa’s Song” (“I never thought there’d be another love song”) written as a birthday present for his significant other Lisa Brescia, and “Look For Me in the Songs” written as a birthday present to himself.
His NJPAC performance was a birthday present to all in attendance whether or not it was our birthday.
Craig Carnelia in Performance on Saturday, January 10 at the Chase Room of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, One Center Street, Newark, NJ 07102. Box Office: 888-466-5722; online www.njpac.org.
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