BWW Review: JIM CARUSO'S CAST PARTY and SUSIE MOSHER'S THE LINEUP Continue to WOW at Birdland
The format of the two evenings is the same: one host, a band, and guests appear on stage, one after another, to perform for an audience of regulars, tourists, and artists, both celebrity and humble. The hosts are on a par with one another when it comes to their hosting skills, though their styles possess massive disparity, Mr. Caruso being a consummate host of suave demeanor and dry wit while Ms. Mosher is effusive in her enthusiasm and manic in her mirth. Both are equally generous in the amount of time and attention that they devote to each guest, and their interview techniques are beyond reproach. Both host and hostess are not only a joy to watch at their work but a delight as well. The one major difference between the tenured Cast Party and the freshman The Lineup is that Ms. Mosher spends many hours before each show handpicking her guests, curating the evening's entertainment so that each show evokes a mood, while Mr. Caruso flies by the seat of his pants, welcoming to his open mic night a selection of people, many of whom he has never met before, meaning absolutely anything could happen - and he is always prepared for it.
In a one-week time span, visits to each evening proved to be wildly entertaining nights that introduced audiences to talents they had previously known, and talent they will want to remember. The December 10th THE LINEUP offered a well-publicized cast that featured Tony Award winner Debbie Gravitte with her son Sam, Broadway actress Candice Woods, nightclub performer Michael Winther, cabaret performer Amy Wolk, recording artist Michael Longoria, stand up comic Taffy Jaffe, and singer-songwriter Eugene Ebner dueting with theatrical jack of all trades Jeremy Stolle. In an evening that featured music ranging from Broadway to Christmas to rock and roll, not a moment lagged as The Birdland Theater overflowed with electricity from a crowd in a constant state of amazement. Ms. Mosher has done her homework, seeing to it she knows who each of her guests is, what they do, and what questions she should ask to introduce them and their particular brand to the Lineup audience. After a Susie Mosher introduction, Kellyanne Conway and Betsy Devos could get up and sing "Sisters" to a Birdland Theater crowd and they would throw roses instead of fruit. There is no way to hide the respect and admiration Mosher has for her guests and the wealth of talent they bring to her stage. On the 10th the indefatigable Mosher clung with indisputable adoration to Mr. Gravitte before giving him back to his mom for their duet from Wildhorn's Bonnie and Clyde, and she gazed reverently at Ms. Wolk while she was performing her self-penned song about her obsession with British men. The affection and regard Susie has for these artists is always visible, from the moment their name appears on the advertising for each week's show the way she throws her arms around them after their performance. A particularly moving moment in last week's lineup was Mr. Ebner dueting with his bro-friend Mr. Stolle on a song Ebner wrote to honor his late mother. If one dared to take their eyes off of the handsome besties and glance over at Mosher, the humanity in her emotion-riddled face was recognition enough of her commitment to bringing only the best and most accessible actors to her stage. Her greatest skill when it comes to her work is not, in fact, in her unchartable talent and unfathomable energy - it is in the loving care that she takes to provide the artists and the patrons of The Birdland Theater with the greatest night in their week.
At last night's CAST PARTY, the youngest guest was an 11 year old named Christopher Convery, who sang a little Ben Platt, and the oldest guest was a topic not up for discussion... but whoever it was, they had at least a couple of years on Master Convery. There were, though, gasps of delight when show business notables Davis Gaines, Monica Mancini, and Christine Lavin brought to the stage their Broadway, jazz, and comedy specialties, making all happy they chose the holiday season to get out and get a little cheer. One by one, The Host with the Most (no kidding here, folks) welcomed these artists to the stage, and if they were a little nervous at the prospect of singing in an open mic night that was opened by Davis Gaines singing "Old Man River" they weren't for long because a mere 15 seconds of chatting with Jim Caruso while looking into his soothing eyes and dimples for days are enough to eradicate the nerves of even the most anxious performer. Jim Caruso can, with wit, style, and grace, handle anything that happens on the stage at Birdland. Why, only last night bemused patrons of the nightclub saw how deftly he glided right past a 16-year-old crooner's admission that "I work for Chick-fil-A" - a sentence that should probably never be uttered in a room full of show business folk. Moments after the statement, an audience where one might have heard gasps was relaxed in the music of Frank Sinatra, barely even aware they had heard the words, and it is all due to Jim Caruso's maestro magic at the mic. With mad skills that one suspects he has not learned but, rather, was born with, Mr.Caruso chatted with genial graciousness with Mariah Bonner and Carlton Taylor after they each brought smiles, cheers, and a little chair dancing to the crowd with their respective "Keeping Out of Mischief" and "This Christmas" and it was with a great deal of tongue in cheek humor that he affectionately helped Taffy Jaffe figure out how to record her set on her iPhone. Caruso is a magnificent interviewer of guests but his primary focus is to get off the stage and put the spotlight on them, rallying the crowd to shower them with love and appreciation, which is precisely what happens at this famed open mic night, all of his creation.
He doesn't do it alone, though. He and Mosher both have crackerjack musicians on their stages, seeing to it that all things run musically smoothly, like last night's "A Sleepin' Bee" by Gabrielle Stravelli. In The Birdland Theater Mosher keeps Shannon Ford (drums) and John Miller (Bass) nearby at all times, and though her musical director can change from time to time, the role is most frequently filled by Brad Simmons, and remarkably so, for he is truly a wonder to behold as he guides guests to the realization of their dream performance. Upstairs in Birdland's main room, Caruso can be found with Daniel Glass at the drums and Steve Doyle on bass and since it's an open mic night, Glass works with no charts, while Doyle jockeys back and forth between jamming and reading charts over Billy Stritch's shoulder. Yeah, that Billy Stritch.
If one is lucky enough to have a seat from which one can see Billy Stritch's face during the performance, one will get an entire show all it's own. Stritch works from charts, picking up suggestions from the singers beforehand, but he also can just be told "I'm singing The Man That Got Away in A" as he was last night when Joseph C. Townsend stepped up to the mic. Billy needed no chart, he just played and he watched Mr. Townsend like an omnipotent security blanket, seeing to it that this singer, as he does with EVERY singer, was supported, protected and provided with just the musical back-up they needed. Watching Billy Stritch watch his singers is to watch a Father Figure care for his flock. The view is as astonishing as Stritch is, himself.
Speaking of Joseph C. Townsend... there can be no denying that, even with all of the incredible talents at last night's Cast Party, Mr. Townsend provided the thrill of the night. The crisply clad young singer shyly shared with Jim Caruso that he was singing the famed Judy Garland power ballad, and then he outpowered the most powerful singer of them all. Their mouths agape, the audience marveled at the tenor's tremendous talent, all the way up to when the mic cord came loose from the microphone itself and Joe Townsend simply threw away the mic and kept going. The audience went berserk and, during his exit applause, guests at neighboring tables could be heard exclaiming "AMAZING! AMAZING!' at which point Townsend, newly off the stage, was flocked by people wanting to talk to him, and hear his story. It was a moment clubgoers remember.
The moment was made better by having that magical view of Billy Stritch watching this star-on-the-rise do that thing he does.
This writer is not the only person in the house last night who appreciated Mr. Stritch, by the way. A well-imbibed woman seated in the second tier of seats was heard to call out, frequently "Yay, Piano Guy!" or "Piano Guy needs a raise!" and, finally, "Piano Guy! Piano Guy! PIANO GUY!" to which Billy said "Me?" 'YOU'RE AWESOME! YOU'RE AMAZING! YOU'RE GREAT!" It's a good thing she told him because it is what everyone was thinking. Now he knows.
In the final analysis, the proof is in longevity and in ticket sales. For 18 years Jim Caruso'S CAST PARTY has been the place to be on a Monday night, and the crowds continue to pack the room. For 511 days people have looked to see who was appearing at Susie Mosher'S THE LINEUP and the room is almost always at capacity on a Tuesday night. It is programming like this that keeps Gianni Valenti standing at the bar, beaming with pride, as the revolving door of satisfied patrons spins on the legendary nightclub known as Birdland.
Brad Simmons has a show at The Green Room 42 on December 21st, for info and tickets visit their website
To hear Eugene Ebner & Jeremy Stolle Sing ANGEL, please visit the YouTube Vid: HERE
Susie with Eugene Ebner
Ira Lee Collings won the Mousepad!
Photos by Stephen Mosher
Due to a camera malfunction, there are, sadly, no photos of the 12/16 Jim Caruso'S CAST PARTY. Thanks to an iPhone, there is footage of Joseph C. Townsend stunning the crowd.