BWW Review: NEW YORK: BIG CITY SONGBOOK Shines Like the Top of the Crysler Building at Birdland
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New York City. People come from all over the world to visit. Movies are filmed in NYC, and the city becomes one of the characters in the film. Songs are written about Manhattan, plays are created around New York, and TV shows are set in the city. It is a place where people dream of living. Those who love it will always love it, even if they leave it, and there will always be New Yorkers, native and naturalized, who wouldn't live anywhere else. There will never be a lack of visitors, come to share in the love. New York City. It is, simply, magical.
You must take the A Train
There is some magical New York music happening regularly over at Birdland, in the recurring show New York: Big City Songbook. The musical revue conceived, written and presented by Deborah Grace Winer gives a once-monthly performance on Sundays and boasts some of the most famous and beloved songs about the city that never sleeps, all arranged in ways beautiful and breathtaking by John Oddo, whose work is carried out by musical director Joseph Davidian, a marvel at the keyboard. Directed by Mark Waldrop, the revue moves seamlessly along with much of the credit going to Ms. Winer, who hosts with humor and grace, introducing each of the performers for one stellar performance after another; and, oh, the singers. Have mercy.
A Manhattan lady that I know very well.
It can hardly be denied that Klea Blackhurst is the hardest working woman in the business. While performing in Panama Hattie over at The York Theater, she managed to fit in hosting the third night of The Cabaret Convention, and just days after Panama Hattie closed, she appeared in New York: Big City Songbook. The beautiful, brilliant and always brassy Blackhurst radiates from center stage in an appropriate simple shape-hugging red dress reminiscent of Mama Rose, bringing all the feminine ways and performance power for which she is known and revered. The audience lovingly (and willingly!) in the palm of her hand, Ms. Blackhurst appears to be the cast member tasked with the comedy songs, a lucky strike for all in the theater because who else could so flawlessly croon a cowboy tune about New York while strumming a ukulele? Which other belter is going to step out of the shadow of Liza with a Z when singing one of the most famous truly terrific, absolutely true songs? Klea Blackhurst. That's who. Don't be fooled, though, because Ms. Blackhurst is soulful and lovely while crooning "Rose of Washington Square" and effortlessly ebullient with Cole Porter's "I Happen to Like New York." The comic actress is more than a comic, she is an actress, capable of scaling the heights with any song with which she is tasked to bring a tale, whether happy or touching, to the individual worlds of each audience member blessed by her talent. Her work in Big City Songbook is the backbone of the play, and especially effective during a Christine Lavin song that is most relatable to anyone who has ever stood on a subway platform. Ms. B is totally MTA worthy... but be sure to leave the house early, because you know about those train delays.
Tell us about the boy from New York City.
One of the cabaret and nightclub scenes' most in demand saloon singers, Nicolas King simply has to be seen to be believed. One can visit his Youtube page and see him on video, but it won't give you a clear picture of what he can do. The overwhelming power of his voice and his physical presence on the stage is unfathomable. It's like someone took the best parts of each member of The Rat Pack, threw in a dash each of other great crooners like Damone, Bennett, Darin and Buble, threw them in a cocktail shaker with a big dose of King's own original wizardry, and poured into a martini glass the coolest cat to stand at a microphone and run the gamut of Herculean vocal ability and physical presence ever seen on a nightclub stage. Not stuck behind the piano, he is able to leap around the stage, as though choreography springs naturally forth in the music and the moment. Each of his performances in the show topped the last, but one moment stood out for this writer, because there is one song I never want to hear in a club. There is a song that can only be sung by one person: New York New York. And anytime I learn that someone is going to sing "New York New York," I roll my eyes. Nicolas King has changed all that for me. If ain't gonna be Liza, it can be Nicolas King. But nobody else, and I mean it. Long had I been trying to catch Mr. King's act, and life always got in the way. After seeing him in Big City Songbook, I will be making every effort to attend every performance he does in NYC.
At Carnegie Hall where the atmosphere's right.
Well, contrary to anything I personally believed, it would appear that there are still surprises awaiting me inside the walls of a nightclub, because Laurie Wells was the artist I googled when I got home. I've seen Klea many times, and I researched Nicolas on Youtube, but Laurie Wells was an OMG moment for me. The first person to take the stage in New York: Big City Songbook, her chic grabbed me first. Then she sang. She is amazing, I thought, what a voice, I thought, what style, I thought, it has to be the song, I thought. Then she sang another song, and I thought "Stephen Mosher, memorize this woman's name." So I did. Then I googled Laurie Wells and learned of her vast accomplishments in the business. I was just never in the right place at the right time to be given the privilege of seeing her work. In fact, I believe that the cosmic purpose of my never having seen Ms. Wells before is so that my first exposure to her incomparable skill would be a musical revue about my favorite place in the world, utilizing some of my favorite songs from my life. Ms. Wells is a force with which to be reckoned, able to perform feats of daring-do with her vocal prowess that would give some singers pause. Her willingness to dive head-first into the music and the stylings is awe-inspiring, with wild abandon reflective of an old saying "Dance like nobody's watching" - Laurie Wells throws down with the music like everyone is watching, and she doesn't care. Thrill-A-Minute Wells is definitely on my radar now.. And once on that radar, a person is not allowed off.
A wondrous toy just made for a girl and boy.
If watching the soloists in New York: Big City Songbook isn't enough to raise the pulse and happiness of a Birdland audience, the show has an Ace in the Hole tidal wave of talent, tailor made to sweep them up to the highest heights: the numbers where the entire cast performs are deliciously designed to get one's toes tapping and one's fingers snapping, with jazz vocalizing that would make Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Torme proud, and harmonies worthy of The Andrews Sisters. The chemistry these three have with one another, as well as Mr. Davidian and bassist extraordinaire Jay Leonhart, is combustible in ways musical and personable, divinely visible, audibly thrillable and thoroughly enjoyable. And speaking of Jay Leonhart, he is the cherry on the cake of the evening, taking center spot to accompany himself on his own "Double Parking" - a song to which every New Yorker can relate. No more to be said on that subject, except this: Jay Leonhart alone is worth braving the 42nd street subway stop to get to Birdland. He is a treasure to the community and the art of cabaret.
I love the East Side, the West Side, the North Side and the South Side, so take me back to...
New York: Big City Songbook. I would pay money to feel this good once a month. The show, the artists, the Birdland ambiance, the Birdland staff, the songs: it is all a surefire way to end the week, to start a new one, and to remind yourself of all the great stuff there is to do and see in our fair burg. I loved every minute of this evening. And why not? After all...
I happen to like New York.
New York: Big City Songbook resumes performances on February 23, 2020. For information and tickets visit the Birdland Website
Photos by Stephen Mosher