The Two of Clubs
Three stops from uptown to downtown, with three very different kinds of shows: A tribute to Comden & Green at the 92nd Street Y, Emily Abraham's pop cabaret act at The Encore, and an Opera Caffe that exists only two nights per week near NYU. Quality varies almost as much as the musical styles, but the very existence of these three shows serves to remind us that we live in a vibrant city that overflows with musical choices ...
Y Not Better?
Let's start uptown at the 92nd Street Y. In its 35th season, the venerable "Lyrics & Lyricists" series just completed a tribute to the work of Betty Comden & Adolph Green. Each production in the series has its own Artistic Director, and this one had Paul Trueblood who was the musical director for Comden & Green for twenty-five years. There can be no doubt that he was the man for the job. The concert's host was the elegant Ralph Howard. Angelique Ilo over-directed this revue, but that was less of an issue than the uninformative script. Perhaps that accounts for the lack of a writing credit?
Six performers gave the audience at the Y a taste of Comden & Green's impeccable lyric writing. Some of the songs that were chosen seemed baffling ("On the Twentieth Century") just as some of those left out of the program were surprising ("Singin' in the Rain"). The good news, of course, is that Comden & Green wrote so many wonderful songs. In this instance, the choice was to do some numbers from lesser known shows like Subways are for Sleeping and Fade Out, Fade In. There were a couple of film clips thrown in as well, but that was ultimately distracting. Once you're watching Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin, and Gene Kelly in On the Town, do you really want them to shut down the film? And what contemporary performer wants to compete with them for the audience's attention? Worse was the director's choice to show a full, long (non-musical) scene from Singin' in the Rain. The concert - remember, it was a concert? - stopped dead.
Among the cast members, only Beth Leavel seemed to really spark throughout the entire show; her best moment was a strong rendition of "Just in Time." Paige Price was cute performing a spoof of Shirley Temple in the comedy song and dance number, "You Mustn't Be Discouraged" (from Fade Out, Fade In, originally performed by Carol Burnett). She was eventually joined in the number by Eugene Fleming, who provided a Bill "Bojangles" Robinson turn. Walter Charles added his strong baritone to the proceedings, while Jim Walton and Kimberly JaJuan carried their fair share of the material, as well.
The Curious Case of Emily Abraham
The Comden & Green tribute might have been a disappointment, but we were still "on the town," heading south toward the theater district where we saw Emily Abraham at The Encore in a show called Jersey Girl?. It was that rare cabaret act that was more carefully crafted than it was performed. It's usually the other way around.
The show followed the typical cabaret act formula that tells the story of a performer's unhappiness in their hometown and subsequent journey to New York - and the drama that follows as they eventually "find" themselves in the big city. In this case, Abraham told it very well, particularly the early part of her tale. The patter, while overstated and heavy-handed, still did a good job of setting up each song. And the pop songs were very well chosen to make her points. For instance, her early descriptions of life at home in a small town in upstate New York were represented by "Gentle Arms of Eden" and "Ordinary Town." By the time she heads for the Big Apple, she's singing "I Guess the Lord Must be in New York City."
She was still doing well with her early New York stories, singing songs that fit like "Chelsea Morning" and (her best) "Christmas Card From a Hooker in Minneapolis." But soon after, when the show should have jumped into a higher gear and roared for home, she bogged down with too many songs that were saying the same thing (she had found happiness with a boyfriend) in a variety of different ways. The journey had essentially stopped but she was still singing.
Abraham is a waif-like young woman with bedroom eyes who is at her best when she doesn't try to be sexy. Her voice is pleasing but modest and not very rangy. She sometimes suffers from sounding too much the same from song to song. Arrangements that vary her vocal approach would help her mask, if not solve, that problem. As for the patter, we wish she would say the same things but less portentously; she sounds as if she takes herself much too seriously. The fact is, no one really cares about her journey except insofar as she manages to charm us.
Here is Your Opera-tunity
Heading further downtown, we made our way to a sort of floating Opera cafe. A dessert restaurant five nights and seven days a week, the location actually changes it name on Friday and Saturday nights from 9pm to 1am and becomes Caffe Taci where opera singers from all over the city come to perform. As many as fifteen in one night might step up on the stage and sing. For ten years, Caffe Taci was located way uptown, near Columbia University. It recently moved downtown to the NYU area at 50 Waverly Place (near Mercer).
There is no cover charge but there is a thirty dollar minimum which is readily met by ordering from the full Italian menu. And with your dinner or drinks or dessert you get a steady flow of spectacular arias from mostly up-and-coming opera stars. This is not an open mike opportunity for amateurs - thank God. And there must be a God because this is an opportunity to see and hear these remarkable performers sing unmiked from close up rather than the third ring.
Founded and run by the colorful Leopoldo Mucci, Caffe Taci has character without changing anything except putting up its sign outside. The musical accompanist is a wizened and beloved Siberian grandmother named Iya Fedatova. And the name of the Caffe, itself, says so much: Taci translates into the directive: "Quiet." People come to listen. This Caffe, with its joyful love of opera, is perhaps more famous in Europe than it is right here at home. Television cameras from Italy and Germany have recently dropped in on the club. But we can tell you that two more New Yorkers - who don't know a damned thing about Opera - will nonetheless be going there as often as they can.
Show and Tell
Micheline Van Hautem singing Jacques Brel at Danny's strikes us as a show very much worth catching. She comes with quotes from the London Times. Better still, she promises Belgian chocolates, free (with your $20 cover and $10 minimum. She's got three shows coming up quick: Friday May 20 at 9:15 PM, Sunday May 22 at 8:45 PM, and Monday May 23 at 7 PM.
We don't know Sonya Ledanski, but she will be signing the Dorothy Fields songbook on Friday May 20 at 7 PM and Wednesday May 25 at 9:30 PM at The Encore. Even more encouraging are the people she has behind her. Her musical director is legend Sheldon Forrest and her writer/director is the sophisticated and knowledgeable Michael Dale.
When we saw Mark McCombs' show, Bottomfeeders' Buffet, Scott literally fell out of his chair, laughing. McCombs is now appearing at The Encore on Tuesday, May 24th at 9:30 PM. A remarkable writer/actor, his characterizations are outlandishly and hilariously real. This man is one break away from becoming a major star.