BWW Review: 54 DOES 54: THE STAFF SHOW Makes Full House at 54 Below Happy
It was a full house at 54 Below Wednesday night, a REALLY full house; but it usually is during the 54 Below Staff Show, 54 DOES 54. This is the show that happens once every four (or so) months that allows the regular patrons (of whom there are many) to see the talents of the employees (whom they have grown to know and love) who take their reservations, greet them, seat them, take their coats, cook, serve, make their drinks... and even one of two from the admin office that they will get to know and love during the show. The evening, skillfully produced by Dylan Bustamante, who emcees alongside Kevin Ferguson, is like an MGM musical brought into the present day, with these beautiful young artists showcasing the passion that brought them to New York. Interestingly, that was the theme of the winter 2020 edition of 54 Does 54, as explained by Bustamante in his opening monologue. He offered the friends and fans of the 54 Below family a chance to see "what brought them to New York City" - a concept and a production that truly delivered for everyone.
Mr. Bustamante's skill as a producer is evident because the evening runs without a hitch, with a setlist carefully orchestrated to take the audience on just the right trip through a variety of moods, styles of entertainment, and emotional experiences. Not to be confined to just the role of producer, though, he and his fellow emcee, Kevin Ferguson display a wacky and whimsical chemistry based on the various similarities and differences in their personalities. Equal parts Statler & Waldorf, Bill & Ted, and RuPaul & Michelle Visage, Ferguson and Bustamante are a pure delight as they welcome the entertainers, advise on food and drink items and, maybe, get a little tipsy before our very eyes. Silly and sensational, the twosome set the right tone for the school skit, and everyone was so much the better for it.
The staff at 54 Below is a talented bunch and one of the most enjoyable parts of this show was getting to see them all out of their uniforms and in their own clothing, getting to see their personal fashion proclivities and check out how pretty they all are when standing in the light they carry with them every day. Most of the cast musical performers, the majority of the evening was one based in music, a natural expectation for a cabaret stage, but there were interesting and exciting twists to the proceedings, like actor Eric Corona performing a self-penned monologue and fellow actor Kyle Doerr performing an original mime/lip-sync, both of which brought an enjoyable and appreciated sense of variety to the performance - maybe in the next edition of 54 Does 54 we can hope for some stand-up, prestidigitation, further monology, maybe a poetry reading. As for the musical acts, every single performer acquitted themselves with flair (Jayson Kerr), heart (Michelle Cabot), and vulnerability (Desmond Hurt), though there was a display of sheer musical mastery when Cassi Mikat and Dana Schaaf invited Brandon James Gwinn to join them on a haunting arrangement of the song of the moment, "Into the Unknown." Group shows never have a shortage of ballads but this gang wisely ran the gamut from classic pop with Brooke Beatty's "You Don't Know Me" to modern rock with Kariana Sanchez singing "Glitter In The Air" and Broadway was well represented with Gretchen Schneider, Christopher Brasfield, and Austin Peek offering, respectively, some Kander & Ebb, Duke Ellington, and Frank Wildhorn. To keep things from getting too serious, Joshua Stackhouse invited his colleague, composer Steve Wallace, to join him in a song that they wrote based on a real-life story of a man trying to scam the Lottery office, and Kevin Ferguson closed out the show with his usual brand of fierceness, singing "Hey Ya!" (with an assist from Cassi and Christopher).
Particularly memorable in this night of excellence were Jesse Jacobson's lovely number "Dancing," and real-life romance Kariana Sanchez & Stephen Santana sublimely dueting on "When You're Home," to say nothing of seeing Meaghan Sands slay with "Gooch's Song" and Kayla Bryan bring some flawless dance to the 54 Below stage by doing Michael Bennett's original choreography when singing "The Music and The Mirror." Thrilling.
And then we had Maddie Carney and Philip Romano, two administrators from the tenth floor that none of us from the outside ever met before, and who none of us will forget. In the big surprise of the evening, the tenth floor came downstairs with an unforgettable "Dancing in the Dark" that had Romano on autoharp and Carney exhibiting one of the most unique and unforgettable voices a music lover could hope to hear. This dude is full-out hoping they will come back for the next installment of 54 Does 54!
And, yes, this dude will be at that next production of the 54 Below staff show, and so will all the other regulars of the club who have come to consider these beautiful young people friends, because they are all gifted individuals and they are the future of the business. We all want to be able to say we saw them when they were just starting out.
Because they're awesome.
The stellar 54 Does 54 Band:
Ian Benjamin -Music Director/Keys
Elmo Zapp -Bass
Michael Palmer -Guitar
Find great shows to see at 54 Below by visiting the club website
Editor's note: due to a technical issue, the 400 + photos I took of this show were lost. Seeing the remarkable Michael Hull on the scene, I emailed him to ask if we could use his photos instead, and the incredibly generous artist replied, immediately, in the affirmative, and we at BroadwayWorld Cabaret are beyond grateful. Please visit the Michael Hull Photography website
Kevin Ferguson and Dylan Bustamante
Philip Romano and Maddie Carney
Stephen Santana and Kariana Sanchez
Joshua Stackhouse and Steve Wallace
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF MR. Michael Hull