Barbara and Scott
The Two of Clubs

Here's the Plan ...

Periodically over the next several months we will be surveying the piano bar scene in the various clubs around town. A successful piano bar can oftentimes pay the bills that will keep a club's cabaret room open. Many of these clubs have singing bartenders and waiters/waitresses who could sing circles around a very high percentage of the folks who put on shows in cabaret rooms.

When it comes to learning how to grab and hold an audience, performing at a piano bar is to singing what working on a soap opera is to an up-and-coming actor: it's a great place to make a living and learn your craft at the same time. It's also a place where you can make a reputation.

We should first explain that piano bars have different staffs on different nights. One staff might concentrate on pop music. Another might do more show tunes. Each evening is also driven by the pianist; he or she chooses the music that will be played, calls up the hired talent (the waiters and waitresses) to sing, and controls the access to the open mike. It's the pianist, therefore, who provides the spark of personality to any piano bar evening.

This survey is more about the people who work in piano bars rather than the random folks who take advantage of a piano bar's open mike opportunities. The point is, there is an amazing array of talent that can be seen for the price of a beer and we'd like to tell you where, when, and how to find that talent. And our first stop on our tour will be the Friday night crew that works the piano bar at Helen's in Chelsea ...

Thank God It's Friday at Helen's

Long time piano bar player Ricky Ritzel holds forth at the eighty-eights every Friday night at Helen's. The man has an endless repertoire that is centered in the overlap of The Great American Songbook and American musical theater. He's also extremely well-versed in classic pop. He doesn't tend to sing out to the crowd very much when he plays. No matter, because his piano playing is smooth and ever-present.

The Friday night staff for which Ritzel plays includes actor/singer David Colbert, a robust-voiced baritone with an impressive belt - and we're not talking about his wardrobe. While we were there he sang several tunes, making hay, in particular, with his version of "The Girl From Twenty-Nine Palms." He has plenty of star power when he steps to the mike, evidenced by the fact that he is sometimes out of town performing in regional productions of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, for which he plays the title character.

Jonathan Tomaselli is the bartender/performer on Friday nights and he is a piano bar veteran who knows how to entertain a crowd. He has a gregarious, winning personality that matches his playful vocal choices. He is as likely to sing Elvis numbers as he is to sing show tunes. Excellent at gauging his audience, the bigger the throng around the bar, the better he is at engaging and entertaining them. He is a rangy tenor who can be sweet in his high notes while his lower register has surprising heft and bottom. He doesn't often sing ballads, but you should request one if you get the chance because he is an expressive performer who will surprise you with his depth.

One of the great advantages of hanging out at the Helen's piano bar on any night is the chance to hear one of the club's owners, Colm Reilly. He's there most every night and those in the know will request a tune from him. A classic Irish tenor, Reilly has a gorgeous, bright voice. The night we were there, he stepped up to the mike to sing "Kissing a Fool" by George Michael. Reilly surprised us with the satin sound of his lower register and then thrilled us with his spectacular high belt. Not every club is blessed with someone who is always around who can make your head snap around to listen.

Located in Chelsea, Helen's is a restaurant as well as a cabaret club. In other words, you can dine while you enjoy the piano bar. The night we were there, actors Jerry Dixon, Sean Dugan, and cabaret artists Flotilla de Barge and Craig Rubano were having dinner. Flotilla, sans makeup and gown (but otherwise wearing clothes, of course), got up to sing. So did several other talented folks. In other words, this is a piano bar that attracts real singers, so you are very likely going to be entertained no matter who gets up to the mike. Compared to some piano bars, that's a very reassuring thing to know.

Show ... And Tell

Gina Caruso knows how to put a show together. You can count on an intelligent, incisive hour with this award-winning entertainer. Her shows are less about her and more about her material. She has a new act (not yet seen by these critics) that can be seen on an irregular schedule at Don't Tell Mama that begins on Wednesday, March 16 @ 9pm and continues on Sunday, March 20 at 5:30pm.

Brandon Cutrell is bringing back his exceptional cabaret act from last year, No Reservations. This represents Cutrell's finest work-to-date as a cabaret artist. A strong singer and an even better actor, this is a disciplined and focused show that brings Cutrell to another level. He's at The Duplex March 14th at 7pm.

One of the most impressive debuts we've seen since Julie Reyburn arrived on the scene, bass player/singer/songwriter Ritt Henn brings his idiosyncratic show back to The Duplex on March 14th at 9:30pm - making for a great double-header with Brandon Cutrell.

The much-admired Thomas Honeck is starring in a benefit performance at The Duplex on March 28 @ 7pm We are pleased to report that the modest $12 cover will go to charity and there will be no drink minimum.

The multi-award-winning Jeanne MacDonald, who received a rave review from Stephen Holden in the NY Times last year, brings a new show to Helen's Hideaway Room that begins on April 1 @ 9:30pm, with shows that follow on April 2 @ 7pm, April 8 @ 9:30pm, April 9 @7pm, April 15 @ 7pm &April 16 @7pm.

Jackie Fornatale in her show Second Chance can be seen on Sunday, March 13 @ 4pm and Wednesday, March 16 @ 7pm at New York's newest nightspot, The Encore on West 47th Street @ 8th Avenue. We haven't seen Fornatale's act yet, but what we've seen of her so far is promising.

Sarah Mucho is bringing her acclaimed show Ziggy Stardust & The Spiders From Mars to The Encore from its initial run in the Under the Covers series at Mama Rose's. It can be seen on March 22 @ 7pm & 10pm.

The incredible Varla Jean Merman will be at Joe's Pub on Friday, March 25 & 26 at 9:30pm with her show Girl With a Pearl Necklace: An Act of Love. We haven't seen the show but we've seen Varla Jean many times and have never been disappointed. Funny, bawdy, outrageous - and enormously talented. You can't go wrong with this one.

We're thrilled to recommend Jorane a rock 'n' roll cellist - you read that right - that we saw several years ago at our favorite music festival in Quebec City. She's coming to Joe's Pub on April 4th with her special guest Nell Bryden (about whom we know nothing). Jorane is beautiful, talented, original, and thrilling. This should be quite a show. We're only sorry that it's taking place at the same time as The Broadway Musicals of 1945 at Town Hall or we'd be there, too.

The great Annie Golden will be back at Joe's Pub on Sunday, April 10 at 7:30pm with her show Velvet Prison. A Broadway veteran who is also a pop/rock artist, Golden is both adorable and commanding at the same time. And she has a beautiful, throaty voice. She's a rock singer who can interpret a lyric. You'll never go wrong catching Annie Golden in performance.

Ongoing Shows

Seth Rudetsky's Chatterbox is one of cabaret's most enduring - and unique - enterprises. It's also a weekly benefit. Basically, it's a live musical theater-oriented talk show in which Rudetsky interviews famous Broadway personalities for an hour every Thursday from 6 to 7pm at Don't Tell Mama. Always entertaining - even outlandish (Rudetsky's trademark) - it's always informative, as well. Call in advance before coming, however, because the shows are occasionally cancelled because of Rudetsky's busy schedule.

The ever-popular Poole Party, starring the award-winning Ron Poole, continues every Saturday night at 8:30pm at Don't Tell Mama. One of the best comedy bargains in town, the funny and charming young Mr. Poole, who assembles a wide variety of comedians every week to provide a smorgasbord of humor, hosts The Poole Party. Regularly in attendance, as well, is cabaret favorite Sidney Myer who always scores with a couple of musical comedy numbers. These shows have a low cover and are loooong. You really get your money's worth.

A hit almost from the moment it began, Mostly Sondheim on Friday nights from 11pm to 3 AM at The Duplex is an open mike night where patrons are encouraged to sing just the songs of Stephen Sondheim. If you don't mind a lot of flubbed lyrics, this a fun evening where young performers get to cut their teeth on the most challenging songs in the canon.

-- Barbara and Scott Siegel

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