BWW Review: MARISSA MULDER Warms Cold NYC Night (and Hearts) at Beach Cafe
OK, so who goes to the BEACH on a super-cold and seriously snowy Saturday in New York City to celebrate the birthday of a songwriter when his actual birthday is still nine January days away and, by the way, he's not physically there because he's been dead for decades? Me.... and a sold-out audience braving the weather. Well, before you think that this writer, submitting his first review as the newest member of BroadwayWorld's world of cabaret reviewers, is crazy... let me explain. I'm speaking of Beach Cafe, a safely warm Upper East Side restaurant with decor that evokes its name. The attractive spot rather recently added entertainment to its menu and re-booked the splendid award-winning singer Marissa Mulder for her show honoring composer Jerome Kern. And, like any sane music-lover whose favorite book is the Great American Songbook, it goes with the beloved territory to be appreciatively crazy about the work of prolific, terrific Kern. Witnessing the bliss of Marissa Mulder singing gems from vintage Broadway scores and classic movies, accompanied just by longtime musical director/pianist/pal/pro Bill Zeffiro, is worth risking frostbite.
Showing care and thoughtfully thought-out emphases, but feeling natural, skillful phrasing made the words, poetic or witty, really register and resonate. But, since the common concern was Kern, a writer of melodies, longer piano breaks would have benefited the listeners to allow more pure spotlight on the worth-luxuriating-in music those words sat on. But ---I know, I know: Cabaret's emphasis is traditionally on the language; storytelling is the telling effect. And the Mulder singing voice, often a deceptively simple extension of the sound of her distinctive crushed velvet, sweetly girlish speaking voice, feels conversationally communicative. In high head tones, more purity comes through and is lovely; belted notes evidence strength. The crucial elements of eye contact and effective gestures are strongly integrated to make this lady consistently watchable. Another plus is her palpable joy. (I've happily watched her grow and blossom since 2010, in an early solo show and initial rounds of the 2010 MetroStar singing contest, in which I was a judge, to returning the next year to win that competition; her numerous other appearances and recordings, tackling standards and pop and new writers' work show ability and versatility.)
While I love to be surprised by familiar songs re-invented, I wasn't surprised that this act was more on the conservative, respectful side as a love letter to legacy. With the more formal pieces, though, there was no corn in their Kern. Notably, the zippy Zeffiro makes sure "I'm Old Fashioned" is fashioned to feature a hipper, jazzy accompaniment. Quaint it ain't.
The event was like a meeting of a Jerome Kern Appreciation Society, persuasive enough to win new members. No silly gimmicks here; even had they eyed "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," I'm quite sure they wouldn't give in to referencing the night's dicey weather by having it sung as "Snow Gets in Your Eyes." Although, with the irresistible choice of "Bill," laughs were mined by the ready-made fun of making fun of the piano-plunking partner in proximity --- without changing or adding a word. The eyes-open assessment is all there, delivered with mischievous eyes aglow: "His manly grace is not the kind that you/ Would find find in a statue." But the last skill mentioned in the list of non-skills, "He can't play golf or tennis or polo/ Or sing a solo..." was punctured when brash Bill entertainingly took a vocal solo with the night's only obscurity, a quirky, quipping bit of fluff about a rabbi's rabbits. He recorded it on a CD of rare Kern, "Lost Broadway and More, Volume 4" on Original Cast Records; a couple of the many (non-bunny-related) low-profile gems out there would make this collection of the largely familiar more special. The repertoire choices included expected evergreens written in collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein and Dorothy Fields, first sung by the cast of the groundbreaking "Show Boat" or in films by Fred Astaire, respectively, without filling the show unimaginatively with just the most well-known things that various venerable vocalists voluminously recorded. And they resisted resorting to what many do: medleys to jam in more, more, more of the many tempting choices.
In my decade and a half of reviewing cabaret for other outlets, as well as time before that just being an attendee without pad and pencil, I've seen plenty of acts surveying songwriters' output. One key decision to be made is whether the spoken material will opt for de-personalized patter, making the talk NOT fall into cabaret's typical tradition of self-revelation and the performer's own connection to the material. Instead, some shows' scripts, like this one, take the historical route, telling the audience about the writer's life and career, collaborators, the projects that songs were written for, etc. The risks of this include: coming off like a dry professorial lecture; giving too little little-known info for the already well-informed admirers of the subject (part of the assumed target audience); and overwhelming those with casual interest in the "when" and "who" who mostly just want to be wrapped up in the rhapsody of listening to the songs. ("There will be a quiz later," joked the merry Miss Mulder, acknowledging her hurry with the flurry of facts and dates accumulating in her shared chronology.) But her bubbly enthusiasm and obvious deep appreciation for the composer's talent made her interest seem, well, interesting. Such awe can be contagious for the resistant and endearing for the already converted. Still, I confess that I'd hoped her research would have spread the net wider to unearth some not-so-widely reported quotes and anecdotes or a unique perspective in this Kern-ucopia of background material. But there was a good middle ground between what might have been esoteric or bare-bones bland facts. Human interest stories and amusing ones (No spoilers here!), deftly relayed, were well received.
Words sung seemed to echo with extra appropriateness: "The breathless hush of evening that trembles on the brink of a lovely song" (from "All the Things You Are") described the very quiet audience's rapt attention. The title "You Couldn't Be Cuter" could be our assertion of the adorable factor on the perky things. "I will feel a glow just thinking of you and The Way You Look Tonight'" might be mind-reading the memory-making as the good, grateful vibes were felt between singer and the glowing, involved audience member celebrating a birthday, seated next to me: Kitty Skrobela, record label owner (Miranda Music)/producer who's made possible some Mulder CDs.
Nothing sounded tired or like coasting. Bill Zeffiro was attentive and supportively simpatico. The night's late entry of vulnerability, "April Fooled Me," and a partially a capella, totally tender "Look for the Silver Lining" were highlights. Marissa Mulder was in the moment. A shout-out to a friend who's heard her do the repertoire before questioned whether she'd achieved her goal as a cabaret performer with this old material: "Is it still fresh and new? Because that's my job." --- Yes, that's right. And I'd say, decidedly: Mission accomplished!
More at www.MarissaMulder.com
Photos by Dave Goodside of Beach Cafe
Venue info with cabaret schedule: www.thebeachcafe.com