BWW Review: Ari Axelrod is a Miracle of Miracles in A CELEBRATION OF JEWISH BROADWAY at Birdland Theater
Ari Axelrod tells his audience that his show A CELEBRATION OF JEWISH BROADWAY is the combining of the two things he loves most in life - Judaism and Broadway. One may assume that there are people he loves more, even a pet that he holds more dearly in his heart; but once those assumptions are tacitly understood, it can be accepted as fact that theatrical music from days gone by and his Jewish faith are, indeed, what gives Ari Axelrod the greatest joy in his life.
And Ari Axelrod is all about joy.
Even in quiet, dramatic, or sad moments during his musical exploration into the Jewish influence on the Broadway stage, Ari Axelrod devotes himself so entirely to the telling of the story that an underlying presence of joy flows from his very being, like light beaming from his eyes, his fingertips and the top of his head. Clearly, what audiences are looking at when Ari Axelrod steps on the stage (and, one suspects, during the hours when Ari Axelrod is not on the stage) is a man committed not only to the art of musical theater, but to the ongoing sustenance of the artform through talking, teaching and the telling of tales -- the happiness this brings him is patently visible. Some say happiness comes and goes but Axelrod's delight for his favorite occupation adds to our delight in watching him, because joy is infectious.
It's more than just Ari's passion for his work that shines, though it is the ball of fire at the center of his being, because passion goes nowhere without focus, and Mr. Axelrod's focus is on full display in A Celebration of Jewish Broadway. Working from a script that is equally informative and entertaining, Ari wastes no time with superfluity - he knows what he wants to say and how to say it, without hemming and hawing, and when he speaks, he speaks directly to the crowd, sometimes to individuals by name. Ari follows one of the golden rules of nightclub performing: write a script, learn the script, throw away the script. Through this practice, Axelrod never becomes chained to a space on the stage, a place in a script, or an idea in time. He rolls with the flow as an audience comfortable in his presence feels free to speak out in an open dialogue, making possible impromptu moments like Ari saying "I went to college..." and a patron yelling "WOOO," leaving a blushing Ari to giggle and look out into the audience to see who is laughing with him. Everyone. That's one of the many things that makes this a special man and a special show: Ari makes sure that we know that he sees us.
And the singing, oh the singing. Audible sigh. Ari Axelrod sings opera with a musical theater voice. The technique with which he presents the melodies is flawless in its execution, and the actual timbre of his voice is one of the prettiest sounds on earth. There are many excellent male singers in the business, but it can safely be said that this is one of the prettiest boy voices ever to be heard. And if it were just about pretty, it's a perfect voice for cds. This, though, is a live music show and pretty is what it's about, but the storytelling is of equal importance. That is either a fact of which Ari is acutely aware, or a talent which comes to him naturally, because every single song Ari Axelrod sings, from "Miracle of Miracles" to "Corner of the Sky" sounds like a song you are hearing for the first time. A person may have been listening to the cast album (or soundtrack) to West Side Story since they were sixteen years old, but when Ari Axelrod sings "Something's Coming" they will hear things they never heard before. Ari has an innate ability to go, purely, to vocal places in melodies that are in your blood, places you didn't know existed in the song. His attention to the lyrics and the story they are telling is so attuned to the human condition that you will hear words and whole sentences for the first time, even though you are singing along with Ari (in your head, of course). With each new song, Axelrod brings the entire backstory, and if you know the play from whence cometh the song, you can see that backstory -- and if you don't know the source material, his performance gives you the backstory. Whatever your personal relationship to each tune, the observance of Mr. Axelrod's presentation of the backstories with leave you in awe, and a little bit in love. That's because, while giving you the story inside of the song, Axelrod layers within his interpretation his own story. No matter what Ari Axelrod is singing, he will find a fresh, new, real and personal way to sing the story. It's hypnotic.
A Celebration of Jewish Broadway is genuinely one of the finest shows this writer has ever seen, with Mike Stapleton's work as musical director, arranger extraordinaire, and accompanist shining all on its' own, and the incomparable Lina Koutrakos providing direction that suits perfectly both Axlerod's needs and his style. Together they have created an evening of theater that never feels slow, uninteresting or common; indeed this show is precisely the opposite, providing many laughs, history and trivia that will amaze and entertain, as well as music of so sweet sounds as to make audience members gasp, sigh, giggle and cry. In fact, after Axelrod's once in a lifetime rendition of "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" a guest at a nearby table was overheard to say "Are you KIDDING me with this?" as they sniffled and wiped away the tears on their face, an appropriate reaction, owing to the fact that the performance of the Carole King song was unlike anything that ever came before.
At last night's performance of A Celebration of Jewish Broadway, Mr. Axelrod did more than just showcase musicals with a Jewish storyline like The Last Five Years and Milk and Honey, he demonstrated how composers Cole Porter and The Gershwins were inspired by Jewish religious music to create some of their most famous works, and in doing this he invited to the stage a woman who knows that, in life and in art, you gotta do extraordinary things: Tovah Feldshuh.
Ms. Feldshuh is known for her impressive status as a Broadway star, she being a great American actress; but she is also acknowledged for her devotion to her faith, so when it comes time to ask a celebrity to help celebrate Jewish Broadway with you, Fedshuh was the natural person to ask. There simply aren't enough words of praise to describe the special quality of artistry that this dynamo brings to her work, though anyone who has ever seen her work knows how unique and special Ms. Feldshuh is. Last night's Gershwin number by Tovah could be called a medley, a mashup, or a specialty number - it's undefinable except to say it was absolutely special, powerfully emotional, and surprisingly relatable, even for those members of the audience who weren't Jewish. It was a moment in cabaret history that will remain unforgettable for the lucky 60 or so people who saw it, people who owe Axelrod a debt of thanks for asking Feldshuh, and who owe Tovah a thank you for saying yes. Tovah was the cherry on top of the sundae last night, all shiny and sweet and perfect in every way. She even wore red.
His show over, Ari Axelrod stood on the stage, a euphoric smile of peace on his elated but relaxed face, as applause washed over him. My companion for the evening leaned in and said "He reminds me of Nancy LaMott. I haven't seen this much heart in a cabaret show since Nancy." I was a little miffed I hadn't said it first, because it was true. Ari Axelrod does have something special that is greatly reminiscent of that wonderful LaMott quality, and Ari Axelrod does have heart. A Celebration of Jewish Broadway is overflowing with art and knowledge, with musicality and personality, but what is at the center of this incredible night of theater is Ari Axelrod's open, beating, living, breathing, vulnerable, and substantial heart.
And everyone knows you gotta have heart.
A Celebration of Jewish Broadway has completed its performances for 2019. When new performances are announced Broadwayworld will bring you the news.
Correction: I have learned that the arrangements of the songs "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" and "Milk and Honey Medley" in A Celebration of Jewish Broadway were created by the incomparable Alex Rybeck. I apologize to Mr. Rybeck, one of the very best in the business, and hope he will forgive the error. No slight was intended. --- SM
Photos by Stephen Mosher