BWW Reviews: MARK NADLER Is Deliciously Scandalous As His New Show Transforms 54 Below Into a Decadent Jazz Age Speakeasy
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
When Mark Nadler last performed a solo show at 54 Below, it was a very personal musical exploration of Germany's Weimar Republic of the 1920s, a place and an atmosphere that was dark, dangerous and decadent. I'm a Stranger Here Myself was such a compelling tour de force that it was expanded into a highly praised off-Broadway piece that Nadler staged at the York Theatre last Spring. Nadler's new 54 Below effort, Runnin' Wild: Songs & Scandals of the Roaring Twenties, (which opened last Sunday, ran last night, and continues on May 7 at 9:30pm and May 14 at 7pm) is like a lusty sequel to Stranger, only in this show--which would be more aptly titled "Reckless Abandon"--Nadler is a gleeful member of the club. To this passionate piano man, America's big cities in the pre-Depression era 1920s were happy, hungry, and hedonistic. There was always a party filled with sex, drugs and booze looking for a place to happen. And goodness knows, Mark Nadler wishes he'd been invited to every one of them. But since he was born too late, all he can do is serve as charming and congenial host in re-creating the speakeasy ambiance of the period and in this show he accomplish that in spades--even without the sex and drugs. Damn!
Long one of New York's most flamboyant yet erudite cabaret performers, Nadler is something of a cross between Michael Feinstein and Peter Allen and always seems to straddle a line between being outrageously entertaining and annoyingly over the top. Sometimes he runs wild over that line but for this show he manages to be self-contamed. Upon entering the room in a white tuxudo jacket, he drops his head and peers intensely through the crowd, his eyes seeming to be above his brows, while he glides across the stage like a lion stalking his prey. Mark Nadler wants to seduce, ensnare and devour his audience before he pounces onto his piano bench.
In his last journey into the 1920s, Nadler's cast of characters included Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, Charles Aznavour, and Friedrich Hollaender, the composers of the songs through which he weaved his historical quilt. For this show, iconic American songwriters such as George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Cab Callaway, and Irving Berlin are merely bit players, as the real stars include headline-seeking evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, promiscuous, drug-addicted actress Clara Bow, provocative sex bomb Mae West, bi-sexual torch singer turned acquitted husband murderess Libby Holman, and ahead-of-their-time Greenwich Village drag queen entertainers like Jean Malin and Bert Savoy. No doubt having after-work cocktails with such a group would be Nadler's version of the Algonquin Round Table.
Nadler eschewed the cabaret show convention of a 13-plus song set list, instead presenting seven medleys and an encore around which he told his scandalous tales about the 1920s characters he clearly has taken to his heart. Literally backed by a small band (they were seated behind him) featuring Chris Jaudes on trumpet and Janelle Reichman on clarinet (she was appropriately dressed like a jazz age flapper), Nadler opened with a soft, minimalist rendition of Cole Porter's "Let's Misbehave" into the deliciously suggestive "Let's Do It." It was Nadler announcing: "Let the debauchery begin!" Then came the evolution of "Willie the Weeper" into Cab Calloway's classic "Minnie the Moocher," which began as a slow jazzy ballad before Nadler turned it into an energetic audience sing-a-long.
One of the best numbers came next, with Nadler visiting early 1920s London and conjuring up the atmosphere of drug dens and orgies through a mash up of George Gershwin's "Limehouse Nights" (which took its title from a collection of tales from a 1917 book by Thomas Burke) with Philip Braham and Douglas Furber's "Limehouse Blues," a 1922 hit in which dreamers can forget their troubles amid "the lantern lights" and gliding "hoppies" with their opium pipes. Nadler delivered the songs as a dark and haunting musical essay that was stunningly theatrical and featured cool horn arrangements.
Then it was time to really get the party started and Nadler displayed his talent for dissipation during a jaunty version of "Say It With Liquor" (a song he referred to as "the National Date Rape Anthem" of its time) merged with the 1920 Milton Ager/Grant Clarke hit that thumbed its nose at the new prohibition law, "It's The Smart Little Feller Who Stocked Up His Celler (That's Getting the Beautiful Girls)," which observed that a young flapper (who got the vote that year, by the way) would pass up a rich gentleman for "some guy in a shanty with lots of Chianti." On a medley of "That's What's the Matter With Me" with Cole Porter's "Find Me a Primitive Man" (from the 1929 musical Fifty Million Frenchman), Nadler seemed to embody the character of Gene Malin--one of the era's first openly gay performers--only without the wig, dress, and heels. The torch singing sex magnet Libby Holman (a cougar long before older women dating younger men became a "thing") also recorded "Primitive Man," as well as Porter's "Love for Sale" and "Body and Soul" (John Green, Edward Heyman, Robert Sour and Frank Eyton). In one of the show's many nifty pieces of period trivia, Nadler related that Holman was able to sing these provocative and sexually suggestive ballads by claiming she was half black. He then delivered "Love for Sale" off mic while wending his way through the audience, before ending up back at the piano and using his smooth baritone to great effect for a beautifully understated rendition of "Body and Soul." (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)
After Nadler brought back a taste of his former show with a medley of Kurt Weill Three Penny Opera songs (including a searing "Mack the Knife" in German), he needed a "Hot Damn!" ending and provided it with Irving Berlin's 1922 song "Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil," a lyric which describes hell as a hedonistic heaven.
If ever you get heavy hearted
Pack up your sins and go to the devil in Hades
You'll meet the finest of gentlemen and the finest of ladies
They'd rather be down below than up above
The finest of gentleman and one powerhouse performer, Mark Nadler is obviously looking forward to entering an afterlife speakeasy where he will probably be the house entertainer.