Photo Credits: Diana Bush
Celebrating Jewish Broadway
@ Birdland Theater
January 21, 2019, 8:30pm
To paraphrase Occam’s Razor “The simpler (premise) is likely to be more (effective) than a complex one.” And Ari Axelrod’s premise is, indeed, a simple one, to celebrate the work of Jewish composers in American Musical Theater.
It is unquestionable that musical theater would be a far different art form, if not for the essential contributions made by the likes of Irving Berlin, The Gershwins, Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, and many, many others. So ubiquitous is this connection of music theater to the Jewish experience that it can be taken for granted, and possibly be considered a coincidence, rather than a well thought out, artistic expression, born out of the Jewish religion and community. But, so convincing a case does Axelrod make for this connection, that you may never hear It Ain’t Necessarily So (Gershwin) or God Bless America (Berlin) in the same way again.
Throughout the evening Axelrod uses his stunningly beautiful tenor voice, impeccable musicianship, and clever sense of humor, to both entertain and educate his audience. And with clear, concise direction by Lina Koutrakos, expert music direction by Rick Jensen, and unique arrangements by Alex Rybeck, the show hits a bull’s eye on every front.
The first thing I noticed, (OK , maybe not the very first thing), but the second thing I noticed, was Axelrod’s stunning and clear voice. He has an easy, tenor sound, that seems virtually limitless. With both legit and contemporary sounds available to him, his phrasing and dynamics were naturally informed by the cadence of speech within the lyric, and at the same time honored the composer’s intent (no easy feat). It was, simply put, some of the best singing I have heard all season.
His song choices were both authentic and revealing. And he managed to educate through entertainment, without lecturing. Hidden deep within his clever patter was historical information, like the fact that Cole Porter’s plaintiff So In Love was intentionally written in a Jewish cadence of the melodic minor Key, or that the opening sounds of The Jet Song (Leonard Bernstein) mimic the instrumental call of the Shofar.
Axelrod’s keen delivery of comedy was evident in his stories of his audition process for the York Theater’s production of Milk and Honey, by Jerry Herman, as well as his wonderfully authentic rendition of Shy (from “Once upon a Mattress”, by Mary Rodgers Guettel). And his innate musicality shined during his captivating (and understated) bongo accompaniment to Cool (from West Side Story, by Leonard Bernstein).
And then there’s the voice. As mentioned above, Axelrod possesses a stunning and secure vocal technique. But always for me, the more important aspect of a cabaret performance, especially for those gifted with a beautiful voice, is the self awareness and understanding of when the moment is not about the voice. Axelrod possesses this understanding and awareness in spades. In songs like Some Enchanted Evening (Richard Rodgers), the vocal technique is constantly understated, and in service to the lyric (a real lesson for others). And in How Glory Goes, (Adam Guettel), Axelrod managed to reinvent the song by putting the lyric first.
Throughout this performance I was struck by Axelrod’s originality and authenticity (a word that I do not use lightly, but realize I have used several times already in this Re-View). Every song sounded as if it had just been written… for him. And with just the right amount of entertaining and historical information, placed into just the right context, it is impossible not to revel in the connections, offered by Axelrod, between the Jewish religious experience and the American Musical theater.
In making his case for the contributions of great Jewish Composers to musical theater, Axelrod may have also inadvertently made a compelling case for his own contribution to Cabaret. Bravo Ari!