BWW Review: 54 SALUTES FRANK SINATRA Stupefies at 54 Below
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Thus the most famous opening sentence in all of literature begins one of the greatest novels of all time. The meaning behind the sentence has been studied and debated among scholars and pundits for many years. Readers are given carte blanche to decide what the sentence means to them, in the personal journey of storytelling observance within their minds. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. As a sentence, opening or otherwise, it is perfection.
Saturday night at 54 SALUTES FRANK SINATRA one did not find the best time, nor did one find the worst time, what one found was nap time.
In what might be the most boring night this writer has spent in a club during the year 2019, the activity most compelling was in the audience, which is where the attentions of both my guest and myself were repeatedly drawn by a crowd so bored and so rude that they were carrying on conversations in full voice while a revolving door of lovely singing actors fought to capture, even for a moment, their undivided attention. Nothing that occurred at Feinstein's/54 Below on Saturday night can be attributed to a lack of talent from the performers; after all, these are actors jobbed in for the night, tasked with singing one, possibly two, and in the cases of Lianne Marie Dobbs, Ben Jones, and Michael Winther, three songs. The actors appear to be given no direction, no script, no subtext, no guidance - they appear to be assigned the task of showing up, singing their song, and then leaving, which makes one wonder if rehearsals were ever attended by the man responsible for the whole thing: Scott Siegel.
Scott Siegel is a well-known name in the entertainment community. He has an impressive list of accomplishments as an author, a writer, a producer, a director and probably a number of other occupations. Mr. Siegel, though, has not mastered the art of subtlety, a fact made clear by the 47-second introduction made for him on Saturday night, an introduction that inspired, in the audience, a need to speak louder to their companions, as nobody cared enough to listen to the voluble, self-aggrandizing and boring preface that set the tone for the rest of the evening. The nearly one-minute-long speech promised the audience an evening more akin to a shareholders meeting than a nightclub performance, and at 9:30 on a Saturday night (closer to 10 pm by the time the show actually started) nearly every patron at 54 Below was already tipsy, if not three sheets to the wind, and all those tourists want by that point is another drink and some hot, sexy, nightclub performers to warm their hearts and their loins the same way their Black Label is warming their bellies. At least one assumes that the clientele at this 30th edition of 54 SALUTES FRANK SINATRA was all tourists because if the first 29 editions were as boring as this one, the people present on those nights would eschew an opportunity to return. Of course, one assumes that a portion of the crowd was made up by friends and family of the singers on display, but one should hope that those people were not the drunken hooligans to be witnessed in the vicinity of Table 51.
After his epic prologue, Mr. Siegel mounts the steps and takes a seat as far away from the audience as he possibly can get, as though afraid of catching from them the dread flu that has been going around. From his perch upstage, Siegel ensures that he will have absolutely no connection or relationship with his audience by burying his face in a notebook from which he reads every stat and factoid of the evening, be they stories about Sinatra's life (possibly interesting in the hands of a host who cared enough to talk to us, rather than lecture to us) or introductions of the poor performers (intros that sounded just like the droning announcer on the famed 80's TV special BROADWAY PLAYS WASHINGTON). A mere fifteen minutes into the show, it was quite possible to imagine oneself an extra in the classroom scenes of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, listening to the monotonous voice of Ben Stein rambling endlessly on and on, ad nauseum, until the relief of having a singer step to the microphone, thus putting the growingly frustrated crowd out of their misery for a few minutes.
And thank heaven, the Clash of the Titans gods, Og the Leprechaun, Dudley the Angel, and the three witches from the M play for the singers because, without them, 54 Below would have been little more than a raucous room filled with increasingly boisterous drunkards determined to be heard over the sound of Charlie Brown's teacher's voice.
54 SALUTES FRANK SINATRA employs a different group of performers each time a show is mounted. Every show a new set of songs and trivia, the entertainment is populated by a wide range of talents, from the seasoned pros to the up and comers, and it is a pleasure, indeed, to support them and cheer them on. On this evening the cast of actors was (in order of appearance) Willie Demyan, Lianne Marie Dobbs, Julie Garnye, Ben Jones, Zachary Bigelow, Michael Winther, and Cooper Grodin. Each actor a trained singer (or someone lucky enough to be born with a natural gift) their voices sounded beautiful, ringing out into the night air with gusto and ease. They all did their homework and arrived with their words memorized (something that has been a bit of an issue on the cabaret stages of Manhattan recently) and with their performances ready to go. It is difficult to know if Mr. Siegel met with them to give them any direction because there was some disparity in skill throughout the night, with Ms. Dobbs and Mr. Winther emerging as the performers most visibly immersed in their storytelling, both of them leaving in this writer a desire, nay, a need to google them to see when their next solo show is. All of them talented singers, some of the actors would be well advised (on their next visit to this series) to take full advantage of the opportunity of working with their musical director, the legendary genius Ron Abel, to explore a more personal take on the material, rather than simply sing the tunes with the charts Sinatra used. What made Sinatra so special was that he took the songs written by the greats and did them his way (yeah, I said it), so as to make the journey personal. He changed words and added sentences because he could, because he was in the pocket, because the audiences and the composers believed him when, if, and because he did it. Taking a famed Sinatra song and deconstructing it, then rebuilding it for yourself is what will make a singer memorable to a person sitting in a club, waiting and wishing to be moved, thrilled, awakened for those few minutes. Any singer present on Saturday night should have observed Ben Jones when he sang "I Get Along Without You Very Well." Mr. Jones and Mr. Abel must have spent a few minutes together going over the hypnotic arrangement that made Jone's performance so odd, mesmerizing, haunting, interesting, soulful, painful... and so memorable that it will stick in the minds of the people who saw it, the people who will talk about it. It was completely original and deeply personal, but then, so was Julie Garnye's "Come Rain Or Come Shine" - a number with such commitment and allure that, as she finished her final notes I realized that, entranced by her performance, I had completely forgotten to take one photo of her. Thankfully, she came back for a second number, as did all of the actors, except for the sleek and chic Mr. Bigelow, who one expects will be back for future iterations - that writing is on the wall. One hopes Mr. Demyan has the same opportunity, for his velvet voice seems tailored for this type of music... and he looks right with a glass of Scotch in his hand. Hello, Sinatra.
It would have been nice if Mr. Siegel had spent some time building relationships with the people around him, be it the patrons of 54 Below or the cast with whom he was working because the host of such an evening is the lynchpin upon which any group show hinges. There was certainly no connection with the people in the seats, and the only communication he had with any of the actors Saturday night was the embarrassing moment when Cooper Grodin sat at the piano to play "The House I Live In," only to have Siegel bark at him to move the mic stand so that people could see him. The gifted Grodin handled the moment stylishly by complying, but in doing so by striking a pose and declaring to the crowd, "This is what I look like." Alas, Mr. Siegel seems content only to sit on high, nattering on as though he were having a Wikipedia Party to which none of us were invited. Perhaps that is why, on this cold winter's eve, so many of the audience kept each other warm with more and more alcohol, with louder social intercourse, with giggles and guffaws, and even with a little illicit behavior, judging by the rather obvious handie that was happening at the table adjacent to ours (there is some question as to whether or not they were there with her parents or his parents, but all four were so loaded that Mom and Dad took no notice of what was happening beneath the tablecloth). In a final blaze of boredom and bad taste, the entire room, without invitation, turned Mr. Grodin's finale for the evening into a drunken scene from a wedding, in which slurring guests attempt to sing along to "That's Life" but can't quite get the words out. Still, to the dismay of the professional singer making every attempt at doing the job for which he has been hired, the inebriates persist with their offensive, embarrassing, slobber-ridden, distillery scented, mush-mouthed howling at the moon until those unlucky few teetotalers for the evening leave with a firm resolution to never again attend a show bearing billing for Scott Siegel.
54 Salutes Frank Sinatra plays 54 Below as an ongoing series. For information and tickets please visit the 54 Below Website
Lianne Marie Dobbs
Ben Jones (above) and Zachary Bigelow (below)
Lianne Marie Dobbs and Ben JonesRon Abel
Cooper Grodin (above) and Willie Demyan (below)
Zachary Bigelow, Julie Garnye, Ben Jones, Cooper Grodin, Lianne Marie Dobbs, Michael Winter, Willie Demyan
Photos by Stephen Mosher