BWW Review: Isaac Mizrahi Plants His Own Tree in Sophomore Show MODERATE TO SEVERE at Cafe Carlyle
Returning to Café Carlyle, fashion designer-plus-TV personality-plus-performer Isaac Mizrahi was far too controlled to fall prey to anything remotely resembling a sophomore slump.
After making his debut at the venue last year, Mizrahi kicked off an all-new act, MODERATE TO SEVERE, on January 30. In it, he proved more self-assured on the stage than ever, never more so than belting out a rhapsodic performance of "I'll Plant My Own Tree" (Dory Previn/André Previn) to start the show.
As a form, cabaret is no stranger to fourth-wall breaking, but Mizrahi appeared to relish every opportunity to drive a sledgehammer into said wall. Nearly the first words out of his mouth were, "You have to ingratiate your audience," before joking, "Did you lose a few pounds?" The performer seemed to love pulling back the curtain, giving the crowd a peek at the makings of a show, whether addressing them directly or even making adjustments to the tempos of a few numbers mid-song, his perfectionist streak shining through.
That included his take on "Nevertheless" (Bert Kalmar/Harry Ruby), backed by musical director Ben Waltzer on piano, Neal Miner on bass, Daniel Freedman on percussion, Joe Strasser on drums, and Benny Benack III on trumpet. Benack in particular had many opportunities to shine, "Nevertheless" included, and Mizrahi never let him forget it. The star wisely maintained the comedic---and mostly one-sided---ALL ABOUT EVE vibes between him and Benack from last year's DOES THIS SONG MAKE ME LOOK FAT?
Mizrahi was faced with a shockingly vocal crowd on opening night. Before he could even begin his performance of "Dance Only with Me" (Betty Comden/Adolph Green), he was informed of how "nice" Betty and Adolph were by an audience member, and that was only the second song of the night. But overall, Mizrahi was triumphant, weathering the myriad disruptions with tremendous grace.
It seems like every show these days is required to reference the #MeToo movement in some fashion, and MODERATE TO SEVERE was no exception. Mizrahi's commentary about wearing a tracksuit to the Golden Globes being his preferred means protest (opposed to hair, makeup, and a black dress) was at least more nuanced than his decision to follow it up with a cover of "The Laziest Girl in Town" (Cole Porter), sung as his explanation for not getting caught up in any controversies.
For the most part, his jokes about gay culture didn't entirely hit their mark, though it seemingly had less to do with the material than with connecting to the audience at hand. Cracking that even straight guys talk like drag queens these days, the room was all but silent when he joked about his bandmates "kiki-ing in the corner" during rehearsal. Conversely, he sparked an uproar among the crowd, while discussing a tax fraud robocall that, according to Mizrahi's friend, targets "older, paranoid taxpayers."
However, Mizrahi undoubtedly won over the audience with a rewrite of Cole Porter's "You're the Top," cleverly working in references to queer culture for a fun number that played like a Randy Rainbow remix, only looser and less focused. While there's no way to verify his claim that his was the gayest show in the world, rhyming "glamour" with "Armie Hammer" certainly doesn't hurt. And when another vocal audience member told him afterward that the number was excellent, he simply sighed, "Are you surprised?"
The star returned to the resounding high notes of his opening number with "There Is a Time" (Charles Aznavour), but his take on Labi Siffre's "My Song" was gorgeously untouched, spotlighting the purity of his voice more than any other number.
He also revived his regifting segment, which had less to do with generosity than with eliminating clutter from his home. Items included a miscellaneous cord, takeout silverware sets, an eyeglass cleaning cloth he kept for himself, and an Oprah mask. That last item was claimed by Benack, who, as predicted by Mizrahi, admitted to posting a photo wearing it not five minutes later.
Far and away, Mizrahi's biggest musical risk was a funky, mid-tempo reimagining of "Heart of Glass" (Debbie Harry/Chris Stein). Giving the lyrics room to breathe, it was a welcome departure in a show largely built on standards and Broadway tunes. To that end, he pivoted right back to his sweet spot, delivering a solid rendition of "Don't Rain on My Parade" (Bob Merrill/Jule Styne), but not before again leaning into the endless comedic engine that was the rivalry with his trumpet player, grumbling, "Let me guess, another solo."
Beautifully structured so neither the songs nor the patter sat long enough to get stale, Mizrahi was just as adept at knowing how to perfectly taper things off. He crooned the painfully tender "You're Nearer" (Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart), pairing it with a few wisps of "A Doodlin' Song" (Carolyn Leigh/Cy Coleman) before calling it a night.
Even the most skilled performers have to beware wearing out their welcome, and Mizrahi exhibited humor, restraint and flat-out fantastic vocals---in equal measure---in his repeat performance. "Trilogy" has a nice ring to it, doesn't?
Troy Frisby is an entertainment writer and digital news producer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @TroyFrisby.