Review: 54 CELEBRATES HANUKKAH: A FESTIVAL OF WRITERS at Feinstein's/54 Below by Guest Reviewer Ari Axelrod

Finally, a Hanukkah show with a plethora of good Hanukkah songs - take it from an expert.

By: Dec. 09, 2021

Review: 54 CELEBRATES HANUKKAH: A FESTIVAL OF WRITERS at Feinstein's/54 Below by Guest Reviewer Ari Axelrod This holiday season we at Broadway World Cabaret have invited artists from the club and concert community to join us in reporting on the happenings around town. Artists with a particular focus in their own work will be joining us to give our readers their take on shows for which they have a special interest. Their one and only instruction from our editorial desk was: "This is not a critique, it is a review - go and enjoy the show and report back on what you saw." The resulting stories are planned as an in-depth, fun, and relatable look into the various corridors of the club and concert art form, from the people who, daily, walk those corridors. We hope you enjoy these special articles and we wish you the happiest of holidays. --Stephen Mosher, Editor, Broadway World Cabaret

54 Celebrates Hanukkah: A Festival of Writers

In Judaism, we have a prayer that is said either when something happens for the very first time, or when it happens for the first time in at least a year - for example, the first night of Chanukah. This prayer is called the Shehecheyanu. Before we go any further into this story, I feel it is important that you, dear reader, understand why this prayer is being put into this story. For the first time, Feinstein's/54 Below hosted a Chanukah-themed show. And, for anyone who has recently returned to an in-person cabaret for the first time in the pandemic, let us say:

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v'kiy'manu, v'higiyanu laz'man hazeh.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.

Now, it's to be expected that the first attempt at something would have glitches, need improvements, etc. Understand my intense joy when I say "54 Celebrates Hanukkah: A Festival of Writers" was an absolute victory that left this Jewish audience member and fellow cabaret performer grinning from ear to ear. The success of this show stretches far beyond that of a cabaret room. There is an age-old jest that, "There are no good Chanukah songs." Well, I believe that, historically, there have been so few good Chanukah songs because Jews were too busy writing the Christmas songs we've become so familiar with. This, "in good fun" jest is now a fallacy. After what this writer experienced on Sunday, it can no longer be said that there are no good Chanukah songs because I witnessed the debut of 9 brilliant, breathtaking, hilarious, soul-nourishing, everlasting (like the light of Chanukah) songs.

54 Celebrates Hanukkah was a night that featured the brilliant melding of composer, lyricist, and singer-storyteller, a beautiful display of collaboration and Jewish resilience. Some of these marriages were brand new (as in the writer and performer had only met that day), and some featured a writer/performer team that is actually married. Each collaboration, regardless of how old or new, was a celebration of Jewish values, traditions, and that which has sustained global Jewry for millennia, the telling of Jewish stories and putting those stories to music.

I agree with Broadway World Cabaret Editor Stephen Mosher that music stands do not belong in a cabaret room. The price tag for an evening spent in a cabaret room is equal to (and sometimes exceeds) that of a Broadway show. Refunds would be demanded if an actor in a Broadway show was seen reading their lines from their scripts. Everything we do as performers, creators, and more is in service of the audience. Therefore, when your eyes are buried in sheet music, or looking at lyrics off of your phone, you rob the audience of the experience they have paid for. One of my fondest moments in a cabaret room was sitting next to a woman whose daughter has autism which requires her to have full-time care. But because this woman heard that Andrea McCardle and Donna Mckecknie were doing a show at Feinstein's/54 Below, she found someone to care for her daughter for the evening, drove with her friend from New Jersey, paid the tolls, paid for parking in NYC, paid for their premium-priced 7:00 tickets, and the food/drink minimum. Imagine if that person had gone through all of that only to see a show where the performers were reading lyrics off of their phones. What sort of message does that convey to an audience? That being said, this writer believes that if we can be so specific in our argument as to whether or not a piece of theatre is a musical or a play with music, the same arguments can be had in nightclubs. Not every show with a mic stand, a stool, and a piano in a dimly lit room is a cabaret. Some are showcases, concerts, musical revues, nightclub acts, etc. When it comes to cabaret, I believe that there should be absolutely no lyric sheets. However, if the art form is a showcase intended to highlight the work of a writer, and you require reading your lyrics to highlight the writer's work, and the reading of your lyrics is done in a way that does not diminish your performance as a singing storyteller nor the work of the writer, then, by all means, read your lyrics. However, the reading of your lyrics must be in service of the work, NOT a crutch due to a lack of preparedness. Because 54 Celebrates Hanukkah: A Festival of Writers was a show featuring the work of writers, I believe that the reading of lyrics was acceptable. However, I'd like to highlight two instances where lyrics were read. One was done expertly and artfully, the other not as much.

The first of these two instances is the performance of Marissa Rosen. Marissa had her iPad on a music stand in front of her. She referred to her lyrics only twice, both times artfully, and the choice to read the lyrics was motivated by the text. She looked at her iPad in a creatively compelling and interesting way that didn't diminish her work and aligned with the intention of the show I was seeing, one designed to highlight the work of new writers. Ben Rappaport on the other hand, was buried in his lyrics, a disappointing display made even more disappointing by the fact that his was the opening number, which left me thinking, "Wow this could've been so spectacular. What do we have in store for us this evening?"

The only other frustration I observed is that for nearly half of the numbers, I couldn't see the faces of the performers, actors who might not have been instructed that if you're doing a group show, know the importance of lowering your mic stand when you leave the stage. A mic stand is a set piece. Once a mic stand is lowered, it's as if it's been struck off stage; when a mic stand is raised, it remains an active set piece. Considering that I was seated to the side, whenever a mic stand remained raised, it was blocking the faces of those who were singing. One in particular was the a cappella number written by Amy Engelhart, and featured Sean Altman, Barry Carl, Amy, and Jennifer Malenke. The song focuses on Jennifer Malenke (as she's the only "Shiksa" of the bunch), and her interactions with the other three performers on stage. I couldn't see Jennifer's face, so the entire number was lost on me, which is a shame because the song was wonderful and the performance, or what I saw of it, was very charming. This is where a show doctor or an extra set of eyes during the tech rehearsal to clean up the stage picture can come in handy.

Other than that, I have no criticisms, constructive or otherwise, of 54 Celebrates Hanukkah, a show that beautifully highlighted Jewish, artistic, and human collaboration. There were musical moments in the production that stood out enough to warrant a mention here:

Sara Kapner (The Band's Visit) beautifully caressed the audience with her spectacular voice and honored the art form by singing for and to the audience rather than at the audience with Our Menorah written by Anna K. Jacobs.

Heirloom, the result of a beautiful artistic marriage between writer Julian Hornik and performer Harris Kornfield, was one of those rare moments when this writer forgot he was sitting in a cabaret room, but rather found himself walking through my Bubbie's house, the smell of latkes in hot oil cooking on her stove.

The Perfect Eight Course Meal was, without a doubt, the best group number this writer has ever seen in a cabaret/concert venue. Written by the music director for the evening, Ben Caplan, and exquisitely performed by Tiger Brown, Alexis Field, and cabaret veteran Adam B. Shapiro, this number was imbued with so much heart, joy, humor, wit, and cohesion among performers and writer that is absolutely unmatched by anything I've ever seen. They were having fun, it was clear they loved what they were doing, and it felt like a generous gift to the audience. The level of preparation and execution was, in a word, delicious.

With no Chanukah equivalent to Christmas' Santa Claus, Zack Zadek set out to fill this gap with his brilliant song, "Through the Night '' exquisitely performed by Harrison Chad who portrays the protagonist of the number: a Chanukah Moyel.

A moving tribute to the historical events of the Hanukkah story was "Neir Tamid, The Eternal Flame" written by the father/daughter writing team of Larry and Laurice Hochman performed by Sarah Goldstein.

A robust number that level every audience member in stitches was The Miracle of Hanukkah written by Eli Bolin and Jed Resnick, performed by Allison Posner and Jef Redsnick

Speaking personally, the highlight of the evening for me was each performer being asked by the brilliant hostess what Chanukah meant to them: to my absolute delight, each and every performer and writer had a different answer. To me, one's Jewish identity is like a table. A table requires at least three legs to stand up. As Jews, we get to decide what those legs are for ourselves. They can be food, history, music, religious beliefs, community, Jewish humor, anything. There is no wrong answer. So, to witness an evening of vibrant Jews all having a different answer for what makes Judaism and our holidays meaningful is something I will not soon forget. When we think about the Menorah, each night we light a candle and watch it burn, until the next night when that candle that burned to nothing is revived and joined by another candle, and so on, until finally, all the candles that, over the course of the week, refused to stay dark are burning brightly together. This is what 54 Celebrates Hanukkah was: each song, each performer, each writer another candle fiercely burning in the metaphoric Menorah that was this show. The cherry on the top was the curtain call: the entire menorah gathered on that stage, a display of beautifully unique candles burning brightly as one.

I hope this show returns year after year. I hope that next year we can gather in that historic venue and say the Shehecheyanu together once more.

The personnel list for 54 Celebrates Hanukkah (per the 54 Below website) was:

Preston Max Allen (We Are The Tigers)
Eli Bolin (Original Cast Album: Co-op, Netflix's John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch) and Jed Resnick (Avenue Q, Rent)
Ben Caplan (I Don't Want To Talk About It)
Amy Engelhardt (The Bobs, Bastard Jones)
Laurie Hochman (Nothing to See Here)
Tony Award® winner Larry Hochman (The Book of Mormon, Spamalot)
Julian Hornik (Tenn)
Anna K. Jacobs (POP!, Teeth)
Nico Juber (Millennials Are Killing Musicals)
Zack Zadek (Deathless, The Crazy Ones)

Sean Altman (Rockapella, Jewmongous)
Tiger Brown (Elf, Beauty and the Beast)
Barry Carl (Rockapella)
Harrison Chad (Caroline, or Change)
Alexis Field (50 Shades! The Musical)
Sarah Goldstein (Drunk Shakespeare)
Sara Kapner (The Band's Visit)
Danny Harris Kornfeld (RENT, Renascence)
Jennifer Malenke (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Into The Woods)
Allison Posner (Volleygirls)
Ben Rappaport (Fiddler on the Roof, TV Land's "Younger")
Marissa Rosen (For the Girls)
Adam B. Shapiro (Fiddler on the Roof)

Hosted by Ilana Levine ("Little Known Facts" Podcast, You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown)

Musical Direction by Ben Caplan

Produced by Jen Sandler

Find great shows to see at the 54 Below website HERE.

Review: 54 CELEBRATES HANUKKAH: A FESTIVAL OF WRITERS at Feinstein's/54 Below by Guest Reviewer Ari Axelrod Ari Axelrod is an actor, director, singer, and Jewish activist. His award-winning show, "A Celebration of Jewish Broadway," has had multiple sold-out performances at Birdland, one of which featured six-time Emmy & Tony nominee Tovah Feldshuh as his guest. The award-winning show has also had sold-out performances in St. Louis, Chicago, Boca Raton, Ann Arbor, and via Zoom during COVID. In 2020, he received a MAC Award nomination for Best Male Vocalist and won the BroadwayWorld Award for Best Live Zoom Performance. Ari Axelrod's first solo cabaret, "Taking the Wheel," was directed by Tony Award winner Faith Prince and music directed by multiple MAC Award winner Alex Rybeck, and has been performed in numerous cities around the country. Some select theatre credits include: Off-Broadway: Milk and Honey (Cantor/Sheep Boy) at The York Theatre Company. Regional: Weathervane Theatre: Last Five Years (Jamie), West Side Story (Riff), Hairspray (Corny Collins). Repertory Theatre of St. Louis: One Man Two Guvnors (Ensemble).

He is also the founder of Bridging the Gap, a performance studio dedicated to training the next generation of solo performers. Bridging the Gap has been featured at Birdland and Feinstein's 54/Below. As a director, his work has been seen at Paper Mill Playhouse, Birdland, Feinstein's/54 Below, The Green Room 42, and Don't Tell Mama.


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