BWW Reviews: CELIA BERK Launches Belated Cabaret Career With a Solid CD Release and Impressive Debut Show

By: Dec. 07, 2014
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Watching a singer like Celia Berk, who brings a heartwarming balance, a subtle good humor, originality, and a lot of affection to everything she sings, makes one realize the crucial role good instincts play in the self-conscious, self-absorbed world of cabaret. Right at the top of her recent debut run of shows titled You Can't Rush Spring (the title of her recently released excellent debut CD) at the Metropolitan Room, this New Yorker from the business world ingratiated herself with the audience by admitting she was fulfilling a lifelong dream. Berk had already built a following with a few excellent guest performances (most notably at this past October's Cabaret Convention at Lincoln Center, photo below) and in this auspicious debut she proved she easily puts her personal stamp on an eclectic mix of songs. Such ability springs directly from who she is and not from someone's idea of who she should be.

Timing is everything. Some debuts work mainly because of the right mix of songs and a team that knows how to position them in the right spot in their acts. Then it's about the art of interpretation and in that area Berk scored high points. Of course it helps if you have the prodigious Alex Rybeck as musical director/arranger in a show deftly directed by Jeff Harnar. Completing her professional team was Sean Harkness on guitar and Michael Goetz on bass.

This was a lady unfolding a daydream in a well-calculated show with songs that spoke to her--and us--in different ways. While she didn't reveal much about herself, when she did share tidbits about her life, she wasn't self-indulgent and the stories were laugh-out-loud funny. In fact, more of that subtle use of comedy should find its way into future outings. Mature, attractive, and poised, Berk is no Kaye Ballard. Yet, as she grows, she will find that expanding those comic segments will go a long way. Singing in a gentle mezzo, she calmly infuses a matter-of-fact delight with every phrase. At the core of her commitment to these songs lies an unassuming spiritual grace that is palpable. She can't hide her excitement--or her sincerity.

Musically, Berk and her team came up with delightful surprises throughout the show. Hardly anyone today will remember songs like "What's Your Name?" a rarely heard ditty by Lew Spence or Berk's personalized opener, "I've Been Waiting All My Life" from Ballroom by Billy Goldenberg (who was in attendance) and Alan and Marilyn Bergman. The latter served as her show's through line. Rarely heard in a cabaret show is Stephen Sondheim's "Sand" from an unreleased 1992 film, Singing Out Loud ( . . . Love is just sand, you can see it shifting . . . ).

Such a rueful mix of nostalgia and yearning extended throughout the hour, giving Berk some fine moments in an intelligent show that was also fueled by humor and pastiche with songs such as "The Broken Record" (Friend-Tobias-Bunch). Another standout was likely a first in cabaret; a silly spoof on an archaic song by Irving Berlin called "Yiddisha Nightingale" that segued into the aria "O Mio Babbino Caro" from the opera Gianni Schicci by Puccini--sung in Yiddish no less. Translated by Benyumin Schaechter with Berk in a dead pan Madeline Kahn-esque straight face, this number was like a sketch out of Saturday Night Live.

Other gems included a particularly understated reading of "The Folks Who Live On thee Hill" (Kern-Hammerstein II) and "What About Today?" by David Shire, which was a clear audience pleaser. Berk was effectively pensive on a well-phrased "Penthouse Serenade" in a medley with "Stairway To The Stars" (Jason-Burton-Malneck-Signorelli), and her set closer was a beautiful rendition of her show and CD title song, written by Ann Hampton Callaway, who was beaming from the audience. For someone new to this milieu, Berk carried these songs off with the confidence of a seasoned pro.

Once again, Musical Director Alex Rybeck outdid himself with truly beautiful arrangements. Harkness and Goetz were as good as it gets on guitar and bass, respectively. And Berk's fellow singer Jeff Harnar deserves kudos as director for bringing so much out of her. With some minor tweaks in presentation, Celia Berk is sure to attract even more attention as a potential cabaret favorite. In fact, this show makes her an early favorite for a "Best Debut" BroadwayWorld Award Nomination next year. You can't rush spring and you certainly can't rush cabaret career stardom. After waiting all her life, Celia Berk may finally be getting there.


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