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New Yorkers in their hometown: Eddie Cantor & Celia Berk
Reviews by Rob Lester

The setting is their beloved Manhattan for an unproduced musical about the golden age exuberant star Eddie Cantor and current New York City nightclub nightingale Celia Berk, his opposite in temperament: a reserved and subtle chanteuse. A CD of demos of the score for the proposed bio-musical of the star who came to Broadway with Ziegfeld finds him starting out in—and returning to—the lower East side, told through the music, lyrics, voice, and piano-playing of his grandson Brian Gari, another New York City resident, and guest singers. The Berk bonanza of Big Apple-connected songs is a vivid view of and valentine to the multi-faceted metropolis.


Original Cast Records

Zipping about merrily on stage or screen with his hyperactive comic antics and bouncy songs, the eager-to-please stage persona and mobile face with trademark bulging eyes, entertainer Eddie Cantor (1892-1964) was one of the all-time giants of old-time show biz. A glib and gleeful vaudevillian to his toes, son of Russian Jewish immigrants, he was one of those scrappy kids who grew up around the crowded downtown New York City streets and tenements, with those determined big eyes lighting up when he saw the bright bulbs of Manhattan's Great White Way and lesser lights. Like other rags-to-riches Broadway journeys, his tale was told in a film biography that liberally mixed fiction with the telescoped facts, although he did provide the singing voice for the actor mouthing his trademark songs.

Cantor's saga has been the subject of books, including memoirs by himself and his youngest of five daughters, Janet. Her son, the New York City-based pop/musical theatre singer-songwriter Brian Gari, has also consistently helped kindle the flame and nurtured the legacy. Long simmering on his back burner of projects has been a bio-musical about his grandpa. He's been thinking outside the jukebox concept—instead of incorporating the Cantor classics like "Makin' Whoopee" and "Yes Sir, That's My Baby," he'd have the story told with a fully original score. It hasn't gotten much beyond dreams, delays, and demo discs (a few numbers have been previously included on albums). That's why this belated issue is titled The Unproduced Eddie Cantor Musical. But hearing it makes me think the release should produce the better-late-than-never results it (still) deserves: a staging. While some expansion, deepening, and tweaking would be in order, and perhaps more pastiche and polish, there's evocative and especially infectious stuff here.

Gari's sweet side comes through in his affectionate portrayal of the life and times of his kinfolk, in both writing and performance. His plaintive voice is effective. Other performers also take turns in the spotlight. It must be remembered that these are mostly old demos, not intended to be the equivalent of a planned-out studio cast album representing a final version of a full score. Characterization and "performance mode" are sometimes more sketchy or just suggested. Some tracks have a tentative, tip-toeing feel, but the potential is more than hinted at.

Things begin modestly. Be patient. To me, the earliest pieces are the least impressively crafted items, though their collective asset is setting the stage and mood appropriately for a sentimental and tender base. Unapologetically earnest in laying out struggle and sacrifice, the impending birth of our future icon is announced as "Someone Else to Think Of," sung with a cloud of cautioned wariness by Marti Deters as the mother. As both parents died before Eddie was two years old, his single grandmother nobly abandoned her old life in the old country to raise him, shown in Yvonne Roome's somber singing. Her sole assignment begins before those deaths in "Esther's Song," with a mix of matriarchy and maybe martyrdom ("I was wealthy and I had success/ But I'll get used to surviving on less ...").

Soon the spunk kick in as Gari starts to parade the young Eddie's brash and bright bursts of confidence. Strutting his precocious stuff, the character voiced by Gari captures the eager-beaver drooling desire of "I Wanna Drink with the Older Guys" and the braggadocio of "I Can Be Trusted" when he tries to make ends meet with a meat-delivery job, but samples too many salamis.

Eddie's future wife Ida is idealized in two selections redolent with charm and endearingly antique grace. As in Funny Girl, the musical about Fanny Brice, who, like Cantor, was featured in editions of the famous Ziegfeld Follies, there's a number invoking the name of one certain street in their shared lower East side neighborhood. Gari, in a solo, is at his gentlemanly love-struck best extolling Ida as "The Belle of Henry Street." Cast to perfection as Ida for the lovers' duet of "Eddie, the Parlor Door Is Open," creamy-voiced cabaret royalty KT Sullivan captures the essence of period flavor.

Two heartfelt tear-jerkers (the good kind) balance the pain of missing departed loved ones with the hint of a metaphysical sense that they are not truly gone. These are handled with dignity rather than mawkishness in "In Your Dreams No One Is Missing" and "What Makes You Think She Didn't See You?" when Cantor is consoled by a star colleague, Will Rogers (who, of course, has had his own life enacted in a Broadway musical, one more reason Cantor seems overdue for the same). Don Ciccone handles both selections with unencumbered sincerity and a bonus track of the latter features sturdy-voiced Tom Lucca in a live performance from 2015.

As a longtime Cantor fan, I am especially delighted by Gari's writing and performance of "It's Harder to Hit a Moving Target," where he really hits the mark in bringing us the stage personality we remember. Taking the stage at a place called Miner's, our hero—still in his teens—gets a shot at being on the bill and it's like he's being shot out of a cannon. It's daffy and fleet, turning his grandfather's joking "explanation" for his staging style of hyperkinetic skipping and dashing about into a song. And throughout this giddy romp, he crystallizes the legend's deliciously silly sensibility and channels his timbre and vocal stylings.

The mix of razzle dazzle (more of that would be good), turn-of-the-century nostalgia, and heart-on-sleeve sentiment strongly suggests a versatile, balanced score that could be beefed up to raise the bar. I'd love to hear it fleshed out with an orchestra that would bring more colors than the writer's basic keyboard work and some miscellaneous instrument work by frequent Gari colleague Jeff Olmsted. When our main character revisits his old stomping grounds and reflects on how the old New York sights and sites are disappearing for real or just from his memory in "There Goes the Neighborhood," we hear both the writer/performer and his ancestor's longing with the words "Pushcarts and street fights/ Hangin' on street lights/ Gone without sayin' goodbye" and we choke back a tear, too, sensing audiences somehow missing or missing out on living through a time few knew: "It's true it's the past/ But you want it to last/ If it's yours." And I think, through this album, we're made ready to bring back Eddie.


Gramercy Nightingale Music Music

So, what do you do for an encore when you've been showered with cabaret awards and nominations in your solo debut year, had your face on the front of Cabaret Scenes magazine as the subject of one of the just six annual cover feature stories, received a coveted spot in the annual Cabaret Convention concert program others long for (for many long years) and, while on the big Jazz at Lincoln Center stage, been surprised by a previously unannounced honor—presented with a plaque and award named for star songstress Margaret Whiting? If you're the celebrated Celia Berk, you go to work. You follow up your attention-grabbing act and CD with a second act based on your new, second solo CD. Being a native New Yorker with an ongoing love affair with Gotham and what it's brought her as its population has been singing her praises, singing the town's praises is the return compliment that provides her theme, titled Manhattan Serenade. And she's doing so, live at the aptly named Metropolitan Room on the Sundays in April.

A mellow maturity and thoughtfulness radiate through Celia Berk's approach to her well-considered selections. Nothing is haphazard. Her timbre is appealing, with rewardingly rich, smooth tones in her lower register, a calming voice suggesting brandy rather than fizzy champagne. This suits the more serious and ruminating material best, so "Lonely House" from the Kurt Weill/ Langston Hughes score of Street Scene is masterful yet refined, no melodramatic self-indulgence. That "House" is haunted in the most artful way.

In numbers that require a looser feel of abandon, there are lingering echoes of the sedate Celia. She can seem more reserved than frolicsome, meting out sparkle and spunk in measured doses. Oh, she's game, but almost dutifully so. In Irving Berlin's wacky "Manhattan Madness," she's holding on tightly on the wild roller coaster ride, smiling through slightly gritted teeth along with her singing companions, who are all actually tracks of her own voice as cloned "back-up singers," while the musicians who include Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks sound fearless, not to be held back from zooming and zipping. In more controlled settings, her classy and respectful ways matched by simpatico arrangements and orchestrations banish potential sticky sentimentality from ballads, so that Rodgers & Hart's romantic rendezvous at "A Tree in the Park" becomes refreshingly convincing.

A huge asset in this recital of songs about New York City is that it is not made up of the usual suspects. Many neglected, rarely covered but excellent songs were sought and held up to the light and are found to be glimmering like the jewels they are. So, while there is another swell Rodgers & Hart selection, it's not their go-to piece for such tributes to the home turf they shared, too; instead of their first hit, "Manhattan," we get "I Gotta Get Back to New York." Less imaginative compilers looking for that restless traveler's sentiment would probably have opted for the more-often covered Cole Porter ode with the same agenda, "Take Me Back to Manhattan." The album is full of smart choices that are not just neglected nuggets of songwriting craft, but that go beyond just praising the city to its skyscraper-filled skies. Similarly, the typical seasonal reflex action could have been the overexposed "Autumn in New York," but the creative curators came up instead with the gentle "Spring in Manhattan" which a mere handful of song connoisseurs have explored. And, neatly, it coincides with the timing of the CD's release and current concerts, and could serve as a subtle reminder of Celia Berk's prior album, titled You Can't Rush Spring. "A Day Away from Town" is a lost-in-the-shuffle oldie by Great American Songbook stalwarts Richard Whiting and Gus Kahn, with a lyric update by Tex Arnold.

I'm especially gratified to find a new recording of "Seconds," written by Burt Bacharach for a movie never made. It was intended as a new item for the aborted film version of Promises, Promises, the words supplied by that show's bookwriter Neil Simon instead of the Broadway score's lyricist Hal David, when his longtime partnership with the composer fell apart. "Seconds," recorded by a few singers, two on Bacharach-arranged/produced albums, like his own Futures, in the past, gets new life here.

Those seeking covers of choices from musical theatre scores will find that this CD has that category well covered, even beyond the tracks mentioned above. Kander & Ebb's Flora, the Red Menace is represented with a rhythmic reboot, Latin-izing "All I Need (Is One Good Break)" which trades youthful drive and desperation for a less involving but admittedly novel ambiance. "Manhattan Hometown" by David Heneker is rescued from undeserved neglect from the score of the musical Peg and comes up a winner. Broadway lovers will likely relish "The Broadway Song" from Pamela's First Musical, with Cy Coleman's snazzy music hugging the homage to musical theatre that is the lyric of David Zippel (who wrote this CD's appreciative liner notes). It gets added jolts of juice for mavens by incorporating signature musical quotes/vamps from a few hit shows' familiar sounds. A trio of male singers add much joyful jamboree-worthy excitement to this track: veteran Jeff Harnar (also the lady's director) and the two terrifically talented singers who got the male side of deserved attention for their 2014 cabaret debuts: Joshua Lance Dixon and Kristoffer Lowe. Larry Moore's orchestration for this is just plain super-duper.

The sensational playing by top-drawer instrumentalists is indispensible to the professional dazzle and satisfying texture of Manhattan Serenade. It's a virtual embarrassment of riches in talent assembled. Peter Sachon's cello expertise and soul, Sean Harkness with his focused guitar work, Dave Rogers playing great trumpet, the aforementioned Giordano and so many others, with Jeff Klitz sitting in on piano for the two things he orchestrated ("All I Need ..." and "Up on the Roof"). But the crowning glory goes to the creative maestro, arranger-pianist lynchpin Alex Rybeck who deserves special praise for this labor of love that is a love letter to New York City, the place where this much in-demand musical director resides.

Caring talents like Mr. Rybeck and Miss Berk make Manhattan and this myriad of songs about it sweeter, even if it is not your own home sweet home.

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