Review: Celia Berk Follows Up Multiple Award Debut Year With Smart, Stylish, and Meticulous CD Release Show at the Metropolitan Room

By: Apr. 05, 2016
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Raising the bar ever higher, Celia Berk (who in the past year has won "Best Debut" Awards from BroadwayWorld and MAC and received a Bistro Award) celebrated the release of her new CD Manhattan Serenade with the first of four shows at The Metropolitan Room on Sunday night (others are April 10, 17, and 24). Her dream band, helmed by MD/arranger/pianist Alex Rybeck, featured Jered Egan on bass, Dan Gross on percussion, and Dan Willis with his invaluable woodwinds.

Berk calls herself and Rybeck "musical truffle hounds." This second effort, like her debut show, You Can't Rush Spring, excavates eclectic numbers from both well known and lesser-known songwriters. Choices reflect personal experience of the city. We blessedly hear not even four bars of "New York, New York."Arrangements are perfectly tailored to the vocalist with Berk predominantly employing her lower range as well as unleashing authoritative, open throated power we haven't heard to date.

"It's true. I was born just a few blocks from here at Beth Israel . . . " she tells us after a warm, soft-shoe rendition of "Manhattan Hometown" (David Heneker). A traditionalist by nature, Berk then offers Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart's charming "A Tree in The Park." Performance is stylish, unaffected, lilting. Respect and reserve makes the song sound like it must've back then.

Irving Berlin's 1932 "Manhattan Madness" (from Face the Music) arrives with a whomp! Berk eschews tensile phrasing for the zigzag impressions of lights, horns, and the bustle of our city seen through anti-prohibition lenses. Her head tilts back and forth with the illusion of distraction, while hands remain still. Everything is channeled to precise, trenchant delivery. Dan Willis' clarinet and Rybeck's ragtime piano imbue the number with atmosphere.

"The Party Upstairs" (Ronny White/Francesca Blumenthal) portrays a character kept awake all night by a bash to which she wasn't invited. We hear jaded resignation, annoyance, and an admission of hoping to meet her attractive, new neighbor. My chandelier is shaking to an awful disco beat . . . Berk sings glancing up with a priceless expression. It's low key and here shows little vulnerability. The performer instills interpretation with her formidable personality. Willis again enhances mood, this time with an evocative sax.

A completely original arrangement of "Up On the Roof" (Gerry Goffin/Carole King) floats in on dulcet piano, butterfly-like flute, and gently scalloped phrasing. It's simply wonderful. Street sounds in the distance, the singer luxuriates in solitude, reverie and an errant breeze. You may find yourself putting this one on your smart phone.

Berk connects the songs with just enough biographical narrative. She's sincere and direct. There's no show biz artifice. The engaging performer turns from one section of the audience to another between phrases making even this feel organic.

A pairing of "The Romance of a Lifetime" (Kurt Weil/Langston Hughes) and "The People You Never Get to Love" (Rupert Holmes) is so symbiotic it seems as if the songs were written together or at least by the same authors. Plaintive frustration is palpable. Every woman in the room will hear herself. Rybeck has particular skill with melding sympathetic material.

"I Gotta Get Back to New York" (Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart) gives Berk the opportunity to throw in a few "cherce" bits of well executed accent: . . . da smell a da Bronx is poifume ta me . . . Rybeck's fingers are terpsichorean. The song is an exuberant pleasure. Vocal showcases dynamism. Even as it swells, there isn't a raw edge or a shadow of musical stress.

Celia Berk's new CD release is "Manhattan Serenade."

This is also true of Cy Coleman/David Zippel's show-stopping "The Broadway Song," during which those present perform on top of the recorded track. Berk feels it important that we hear Larry Moore's fine orchestration and the added effect of backup singers Jeff Harnar, Kristoffer Lowe, and Joshua Lance Dixon all found on the CD. Perhaps one day this will come together live on a concert stage. The celebratory number is great fun and eminently worthy or further outings.

The show's title song, replete with gorgeous sax is silk satin, dancey.

Less successful in my opinion are Kurt Weil's unmelodic, self contained torch, "Lonely House" and "Such a Wonderful Town" (Hubert "Tex" Arnold/Lou Spence) which feels thin.

Celia Berk raises the tone of any club in which she appears, always creating an oasis of class. Her shows are elegant, smart, skillfully constructed, and meticulously performed. Vocal control is stunning, ardor visceral. Musicianship this evening is top notch. Berk's "wise and kind" Director Jeff Harnar once again presents an evening where both lyrics and artist are eloquently served.

Photos by Loreal Sherman


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