BWW Reviews: STEVE ROSS' Superb, Sophisticated Musicianship Charms and Enlightens at Café Sabarsky

BWW Reviews: STEVE ROSS' Superb, Sophisticated Musicianship Charms and Enlightens at Café Sabarsky

Attending a multilingual performance at Café Sabarsky in The Neue Galerie (86th Street and Fifth Avenue) is like stepping back in time. The room speaks to an era of higher refinement, not stuffy, but encouraging pedigree and brio. Few artists epitomize this more than celebrated cabaret veteran singer/pianist Steve Ross (recent recipient of a "Lifetime Achievement Award" from MAC), whose fascinating and emotionally translucent shows here never fail to enlighten and entertain.

Last Thursday evening, Ross offered a show called Mischa, Marlene, and Me. Mischa refers to Russian born composer Mischa Spoliansky (left in photo, bottom) who emigrated to Berlin where he wrote popular songs/literary cabaret (in a club established by Max Reinhardt), and then to London where he became a successful film composer. Marlene is la Dietrich (right in photo, bottom). It was Spoliansky who, after a bad audition in Berlin, made young Marlene lower octaves to what we now recognize as her iconic sound. She was discovered, singing in one of Spoliansky's shows, by Josef von Sternberg then searching for his lead actress in The Blue Angel. A third contributor to/inspiration for this evening, we're informed, is The Comedian Harmonists* (photo below), an all male, close harmony group that was internationally popular between 1928-1934 before those among them who were Jewish had to flee.

BWW Reviews: STEVE ROSS' Superb, Sophisticated Musicianship Charms and Enlightens at Café SabarskyBetween Ross's mellifluous narrative, he sings (and plays) songs in English, German and a smattering of French, most of which are unfamiliar. A jaunty "Lola" ("They call her naughty Lola/Her little pianola/Is busy night and day. . . ") slows as if playing on a wind-up Victrola, then segues into "Falling in Love Again." Rarely heard without kitchy interpretation, this rendition of one of Dietrich's signature songs is filled with exhaustion and ennui (Friedrich Hollander/ English lyrics Frank Eyton). Ross has a gift for eschewing the more common, long distance view in favor of presenting material as it might've been performed then. He "gets" history and context.

The larky, dark "It's All a Swindle" (Mischa Spoliansky/English lyric Jeremy Lawrence), during which it's easy to imagine a tap line, is so perfectly entwined with John Kander/Fred Ebb's "Money, Money" (from Cabaret) one might assume they were both written in the '30s. Keeping it light, Ross then gives us The Harmonists' "When Yuba Plays the Rumba on the Tuba" (Herman Hupfeld) from 1930's The Little Show. "Down in Havana there's a funny-looking boob-a/He plays the rumba round the tuba down in Cuba . . . With his oompah-oompah-oompah/They prefer it to the booba-doopa-doopa . . . " This kind of thing has to be delivered deadpan--and is, every tongue twisting word of it, even double time. Accompaniment is infectious.

"Ooh-la-la!" (Walter Jurmann/ Desmond Carter) made its way to England where it was popularized by Jack Buchanan, the British Fred Astaire. It's pure music hall, a bit of "ta-ra-ra boom-de-ay" and a bit of ersatz can-can. Ross sings in piquant English, Franglais and French. A hoot. "Red Hot Annabelle" (Mischa Spoliansky/ Desmond Carter), used in the 1939 film Over the Moon, adds sophistication to spirit with lyrics worthy of Cole Porter. "If I'd written the rhymes ecstasy/vexed ta see/all the boys crane their necks ta see, I'd given myself a day off," quips Ross.

BWW Reviews: STEVE ROSS' Superb, Sophisticated Musicianship Charms and Enlightens at Café SabarskyOne of the most beautiful songs of the evening is "Midnight" (Mischa Spoliansky/Michael Steffan.) A shadowy, wistful waltz, the tune is an evocative ode what was then lost. " . . . One final dance, not even the chance to know your name . . . Slowly I return to one more gin/drawing in the midnight that's now Berlin . . . " When the vocal goes up an octave, Ross sits straighter on the piano bench and his eyebrows rise. Unlike most tenors, there's no unwarranted brightness, no loss of control. A flicker of strain reflects the bruising lyric without cracking.

In 1979, years after her farewell tour, Dietrich was lured back to the screen by David Bowie's film Just a Gigolo, which took place in post World War I Berlin. She sang the title song on the recording. Ross has performed it before, though perhaps never so appropriately enmeshed. No contemporary artist does it better. Though objectively melancholy, the number is presented with a little smile, a little shrug. Like Chaplin's little tramp, the gigolo accepts his fate for good and poor. A gem.

"Just as Alfred Hitchcock always does a cameo, I always include a Cole Porter song," Ross tells us. "I'm in luck because Marlene sang this in Hitchcock's Stage Fright." "Laziest Gal in Town" has a deft, insinuating ragtime feel. "She turns him down . . . waaayyy down." The song raises its chin, swivels its hips, lowers its eyes. None of this is overt. With "Good Night" (Paul Abraham/English lyric Adrian Ross), we leave the resolute style, burnished elegance, and grisly decadence of an era that lives on in art as well as infamy.

Steve Ross's respectful, redolent proxy and superb musicianship is an oasis.

*Harmony, a musical about the Comedian Harmonists, music--Barry Manilow, book and lyrics--Bruce Sussman, premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse in the fall of 1997 and played the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles early 2014.

Photo of Steve Ross (top) courtesy of Stacy Sullivan

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