BWW Review: 54 DOES 54/THE STAFF SHOW Treats Audience at Feinstein's/54 Below
"My husband and I are SO excited about this show!"
That was my table mate at 54 Below, enthusiastically speaking to me, as I lined up my notebook, my camera and my cough drops on the table (always with cough drops because I started coughing during the Chita Rivera Show and that shit cannot happen to me again, ever). Turning from my work, I asked the no-longer-middle-aged-not-yet-old woman to my left something vague like "really?" and I was met by a tidal wave of joy.
"Our friends went back to the hotel to go to sleep, they said a 9:30 show was too late for them. But we don't believe that. We're in New York to have fun and we're going to do that. We've seen three Broadway shows this week already!"
"How did you end up here?"
"We asked someone where we could find some good cabaret and they told us 54 Below, so we came right over and got tickets!"
"You do know that the show tonight is not a celebrity, right? Tonight's performance is the 54 Below Staff Show. All the performers tonight are employees of the club."
"I KNOW! It's so exciting! To get to see real New York actors who have to wait tables for a living get to have a chance to do what they came to New York to do! I'm so happy we were here on this night!"
I took off the protective sunglasses I wear for my sensitive eyes and looked at her. I wanted to memorize her face. She was my kind of people. Together we sat and chatted for a while before her husband distracted her with some questions about menu items to order.
"If my husband's head gets in your way, tell him and he will move!"
That was my neighbor at the table to my right. I turned to look and saw a woman matching the exact same demographic as the woman with whom I had been, previously, talking. I told her it was fine, I had a zoom lens, that her husband could stay, happily, exactly where he was.
"This is my favorite place to come! I love it here! I saw three shows here this week already, did you see Marilyn Maye! Wasn't she WONDERFUL?!"
I took off my sunglasses and looked at her, wanting to memorize her face. Together we chatted about shows we had seen, what we had enjoyed, and the importance of coming to the 54 Below Staff Show to support the beautiful people who served as maitre d', server, bartender, busser, manager, marketer, chef, programmer, and any other position in the establishment. She and I saw them so frequently that we know them by name and have developed paternal like protections for the young artists, working for a living, dreaming the dream, and moving, daily, forward in the New York business of show. We were both supremely excited to get to see them in their Hallowe'en best, doing what they dream of doing. It promised to be a very special night.
54 DOES 54: A SPOOKY SPECTACULAR NOT SO SCARY STAFF SHOW happened on October 28th. If you look at your calendar, you'll note that this write-up is happening extremely late to the party - that's because it took me forEVER to sift through all the photos I took and pick just the right ones. I think readers will be happy with the snaps I chose. In the meantime, let it be said that this staff show was a true treat for every single guest sitting in a seat at 54 Below three days before All Hallows Eve. There was, in fact, no empty seat in the theater. Some of the patrons were new to the club, like my table mates, many were regulars who came to see their favorite 54 Below Staffers in action, like my neighbor on the right, and a lot were 54 Below employees past and present, come to support their chums. It was an evening designed for fun and built on a foundation of love, for whether you are a colleague or regular patron, it is impossible to be around these wonderful young people who make every visit to 54 Below a happy one without developing feelings of friendship for them. Indeed, one of my colleagues suggested that I, exhausted from work, take a night off and skip this one-off, a suggestion I dismissed with a definitive "I WANT to see this show! I'm excited about this one!"
I had every reason to be excited and every satisfaction for having done so because 54 Does 54 was a perfect delight, from start to finish.
Many is the person who comes to NYC to pursue show business and only raises their voice in the shower. How many times have we all heard the story of an artist who got so caught up in their survival job that they were no longer able to pursue their dream? It's a story all too common to the arts and the big city, but it was clear from the show 54 DOES 54 that these singers are, at least, raising their voices with their voice teacher, because every one of the performers brought a well thought out, well crafted, and well rehearsed performance to the show. Some of the actors brought a Halloween theme and costume to their act, while others opted for simplicity and authenticity. There were gimmicks, giggles, and gorgeous music from Brian Shaw, who shaved off his moustache so he could appear, singing, in drag in THREE different gowns before taking his place as a multiple instrument wielding musician, from Gretchen Schneider doing a hilarious Cher send up that had people howling, and from Michelle Cabot, whose lovely tune from The Secret Garden was perfectly bookended by musical comedy hilarity.
Like a younger, hipper, cuter, funnier Statler and Waldorf, Kevin Ferguson and Dylan Bustamante hosted the proceedings with much friendly banter and topical conversation, including topical chat about football, goings on in the world, and The Masked Singer. As a matter of fact, for certain portions of the evening, Bustamante and Ferguson sat at an elevated table off of stage left, rather like Statler and Waldorf themselves. Of course, this all happened AFTER Ferguson's fierce opening number "I Put A Spell On You" which featured stellar backup vocals by Cassi Mikat and Kariana Sanchez. Bustameante's hosting skills were in full play as he charmed the crowd with his obsessions, the aforementioned football and The Masked Singer, he being especially gleeful when presenting 54 Below's own version of the popular show ("This is my best life!" he exclaimed as "The Snake" took the stage.) Guests might have wondered why Mr. Ferguson sang a number but Mr. Bustamante did not and the answer is: he was too busy producing the show and hosting it to do a musical number! His producing skills, though, were clearly on display, as the show hit not one bump in the road. It was splendidly executed evening of fun, and a welcome look into the personal lives and personalities of the 54 Below kids.
The Snake, by the way, ended up being Christopher Brasfield, who had the entire room screaming and waving their arms like they were either in the audience of The Masked Singer or at a tent revival. It was authentically shocking to hear his vocals to "This Masquerade" and it brought the house down.
In a cabaret nightclub one can usually expect to hear some show tunes and the Spooky Spectacular was entirely the right place for Austin Peek's impassioned "Stay With Me" from Into the Woods, Brooke Beatty's saucy "Bring On The Men" from Jekyl & Hyde, Meaghan Sands' comical "Screw Loose" from Cry Baby, and Grace Benigni's cheeky "Pulled" from The Addams Family. Each actor brought a fully realized story to the stage with their solo, and while the shows from which these songs come are befitting of a Halloween theme, the soloists decided how far they wanted to go with costuming, with Ms. Sands' going the farthest in 50's garb and fake blood. It all made for a festive evening of Trick or Treating.
Not everyone is into musical theater, though, and the entertainment was kept fluid by Alex Tordi's heartfelt rendition of Katy Perry's "The One That Got Away" and Aaron Salazar's distinctive point of view on HONNE's "Gone Are The Days" - but when Luis Palomino took the stage for Selena's "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" it caused pandemonium in the room, which had felt like a party all night, but which turned into a rock concert during the number, prompting my neighbor on the right to turn to me with the pronouncement that "This is my FAVORITE venue!!" In fact, the delightful lady had praise and smiles for me after every performance:
"Isn't she FANTASTIC!"
"I LOVE him, he was my waiter for the Marilyn Maye show!"
"Can you believe that VOICE!"
Honestly, everyone should get to sit with this lady during at least one show, as she compounds the pleasure and excitement, just with her infectious and positive energy.
In every group show there comes an original song because these artists always have a songwriter among them, but it was particularly fun to hear Cassi Mikat describe how something she said sparked inside of Joshua Stackhouse the inspiration to write "It Takes Two." With Joshua at the piano and Cassi at the microphone, it was definitely the most personal performance of the evening.
And speaking of Cassi Mikat, while she did wonderfully on "I Put a Spell On You" and "It Takes Two" it cannot be denied that her duet with Jayson Kerr was the highlight of the evening. Bringing full-on Todd and Lovett, Kerr and Mikat performed the showstopping "A Little Priest" from Sweeney Todd to a room full of deliriously happy people (well... maybe the front row wasn't that delirious when Kerr did a spit-take on them with a full mouth of beer - totally uncalled for). It was, as it always should be, the number that brings the house down, especially when Kerr improvised "I'll come again when you have TRUMP on the menu!" to a room of screaming and cheering happy theater goers.
For the finale, the wise choice was made to do the number making everyone crazy for the show with which everyone is obsessed, the Broadway-bound SIX: THE MUSICAL. For the incredible song "Ex-Wives" the wives of Henry the Eight were sung by Cassi Mikat, Meaghan Sands, Kariana Sanchez, Christopher Brasfield, Brooke Beatty and Stephanie Lazard, and if the staff show at 54 Below hadn't felt like a rock concert up to this point, it did now. The audience was rocking, so carried away were they by this display of ferocity. It was the only way to end a night so jam-packed with entertainment and personality, which is what you get any time you darken the door of 54 Below.
Only now people know that the entertainment and personality at 54 Below isn't only up on the stage.
To learn about 54 Below's program schedule and to keep an eye out for the next staff show visit the 54 Below Website
Dylan Bustamante and Kevin Ferguson
Kevin Ferguson and Dylan Bustamante
Introducing THE SNAKE
The Snake (It ended up being Christopher Brasfield).
Joshua Stackhouse and Cassi Mikat
Cassi Mikat, Meaghan Sands, Kariana Sanchez
Kariana Sanchez, Christopher Brasfield, Brooke Beatty, Stephanie Lazard
Photos by Stephen Mosher