BWW Review: MAX VON ESSEN'S CD RELEASE CELEBRATION Thrills at Birdland
On August 19th, 2019 a very special lucky audience got to see Max von Essen play the greatest role of his life: Max von Essen. The veteran of 7 Broadway plays and countless off-Broadway, regional and touring productions gave a concert to celebrate the release of his debut solo cd, and people who have seen him in those plays could not possibly have witnessed a more at ease, interesting, buoyant human being who is living their best life. Mr. von Essen was so buoyant that he actually bounced up and down a few times, joy radiating from his MGM handsome face; and although Enjolras, Jesus and Che are rich, complex characters to inhabit onstage, Max von Essen in real life seems to be a lot happier to play.
And play, he did.
Call Me Old Fashioned: The Broadway Standard was actually released in April during a time when von Essen was touring the country with the play Falsettos, so Jim Caruso invited him to have a belated release party, a celebration that produced a Birdland audience replete with excitement and delight. Within moments of the elegant and oh-so-chic von Essen taking the stage to sing "Everything Old is New Again/I'm Old Fashioned", it became abundantly clear that anyone who has been listening to him sing on any cd is missing out on something special by not seeing him live, in person. His connection to the audience is palpable, and not just the audience in front of him - von Essen really knows how to work a three-quarter room, generously moving about the stage so that the guests on the far sides of the club got an equal amount of his attention. During this 70 minute concert, he sang notes of such dulcet tones as to melt even the most cynical of hearts, jauntily danced about the stage in ways both gleeful and sexy, shared anecdotes about his successes, failures, hopes, and desires; and just when you think it is not possible to find him any more affable, he makes your jaw drop by stepping away from the mic to sing "Almost Like Being In Love" in his best Carnegie Hall legit, unamplified, yet filling the farthest corners of Birdland with that voice, both powerful and tender. It was an evening as enjoyable as any this writer has spent in any nightclub, ever, an evening made even better by the observation of the immense pleasure the performance brought the other guests in the room -- even Birdland staff members could be seen dancing along to the sprightly "She Loves Me".
Max von Essen says that he actually IS old fashioned, that he sometimes feels like he was born in the wrong era, and he is right. With his performances of "Fly Me To The Moon/Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" and "They Say It's Wonderful" it was easy to feel transported to a stylized time when Sammy Davis jr., Bobby Darren and Vic Damone packed them in at smoke-filled nightclubs populated by show business elite; and with Max performing Billy Stritch's impeccable arrangements of "Show Me" and "The Trolley Song/You Gotta Have Me Go With You", it was difficult to not feel the excitement one would feel at a Peggy Lee or Nancy Wilson show. Von Essen does, in fact, sing with the intricate skills of these great jazz singers of yesteryear, taking breaths in fascinating places, shaping his phrasing with sophistication and style, proving that his partnership with Stritch is a musical marriage made in heaven. Indeed, heaven is a Max von Essen/Billy Stritch duet, of which there were three - two smoother, silkier, sexier male voices were never paired together, and certainly not as sweetly as in a Gerswhin medley that came with a heartwarmingly funny story about Liza Minnelli (of whom van Essen does a spot-on impression).
To complete the musical perfection that was Misters von Essen and Stritch, the entertainment featured Steve Doyle on Bass, Daniel Glass on Drums, and Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf on cello, together creating sounds that make the public sigh. It was a night filled with excitement and wonderment in which particularly special moments including Max revisiting his song from Evita, "On This Night of A Thousand Stars" in an intimate light, a performance of "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" that would indicate Broadway audiences missed out when he played Enjolras instead of Marius, and a tear-filled tribute to his High School music teacher, with his Mother sitting nearby to witness the acknowledgment of a mentor from a very classy fella. Max von Essen may have finished the night with his Tony-nominated song "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" but what he probably doesn't realize is that, for those of us watching, he IS the stairway to paradise.
Photo Credit: Genevieve Rafter-Keddy