Photo Credit(s) Richard Holbrook – Jeffrey Hornstein;
Norm Lewis – Doug Devita; Christine Pedi –  Michael D’angora

 

“Do you know who I think I am?”

As said with tongue-in-cheek, self-effacing charm by Norm Lewis during his annual holiday show at Feinstein’s 54 Below last month, the question (which was greeted with gales of laughter from an adoring audience), went right to the core of what makes (or breaks) both a cabaret performer and his or her show: it doesn’t matter if we know who they think they are, it’s who the artist thinks they are, and then following through on that belief to create a perfectly tailored evening that entertains audiences with their own inimitable style (even when that style includes impressively “imitable” talents.)

Here are some thoughts on three magically smart Holiday themed shows given by three very different artists, all made that much more outstanding by each one’s very clear knowledge of who they are and being able to combine their personas and talents into three very different, but very entertaining evenings of wonderfully theatrical intimacy.

RICHARD HOLBROOK @ DTM 12/2/18

Show: The Many Moods of Christmas: Through A Child’s Eyes

Holbrook’s show ushered in the season with an endearing celebration of Christmas as seen from a child’s perspective. His elegant, yet boyish charm gave the evening that magical sense of wonder we (hopefully) all had as children, and his voice, bouncing back beautifully after his bout with esophageal cancer, had just the right stuff for his material: light, airy, and elegant, but with a heft that carried him through some of the more difficult songs he chose, for example: the devilishly difficult “Giants In The Sky” (Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods, 1987), which he tackled with a breathtakingly quick pace, spitting out Sondheim’s tongue twisting lyrics with astonishing ease and clarity. His take on holiday staples such as “O Come, All Ye Faithful, (John Francis Wade, F. Oakley, W.T. Brooks, others…, 1744), “Winter Wonderland” (Felix Bernard, Richard B. Smith, 1934), and “Jingle Bells” (James Lord Pierpont, 1857), to name a few, were textbook examples of how to make these songs seem fresh and new, while he took Mel Tormé’s “Christmas Was Made For Children” and turned it into a jazzy, joyous tribute to Tormé, while making the song his own at the same time. If at times he delved a little too far into the sacred, it nonetheless grounded the evening with a true sense of the faith that is an integral part of both the season, and who he is.

But the true highlight: a medley of “I Remember” (Stephen Sondheim, Evening Primrose, 1966), and “Make Me A Kite,” Michele Brourman and Amanda McBroom, circa 1991), used to create a mini-musical out of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” (1956). This was 5 minutes of absolute bliss: a beguiling blending of performer, voice, and material that left one wishing Holbrook would create a one-man musical from Capote’s touching story. It would be the perfect Christmas gift, one to be savored every year for years to come.

NORM LEWIS @ F54B 12/18/18

Show: Nutcracker Cool

From Holbrook’s childlike wonder to the “Nutcracker Cool” of Norm Lewis, the holiday celebrations continued with the fourth edition of Lewis’s holiday show at Feinstein’s 54 Below.

Launching the evening with a wistful rendition of “Toyland” (Glen McDonough & Victor Herbert, Babes in Toyland, 1903), what followed was a master class in the art of cabaret performance. Gifted with a rich baritone that can do anything he asks of it, Lewis is the epitome of the suave, sexy Broadway leading man, circa 2018: he can rock both a song and a sequined jacket with the ease of the consummate pro. His cool charm, his smooth manner, his sense of humor, and most of all, his emotional connection to every song, from stirring renditions of the Christmas classics “Little Drummer Boy” (Katherine Davis, Henry Onorati, and Harry Simeone, circa 1941), and “O, Holy Night (Adolphe Charles Adam and John Sullivan Dwight, circa 1847), the jazzy “Merry Christmas, Baby (Johnny Moore and Lou Baxter, 1947), and stunning interpretations of “Home” (Charlie Smith, The Wiz, 1975) and “People” (Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, Funny Girl, 1964), allowed him to own the stage, and whip his audience into a frenzy of adoration a la Tom Jones, circa 1968 at regular intervals.

As has become the norm (no pun intended), Lewis shared the evening with a guest artist; in this instance he brought Nick Cordero to the stage to perform “Pretty Women” (Stephen Sondheim, Sweeney Todd, 1979) with him – the oddest choice in an evening of odd song choices for a holiday show, but nonetheless a gorgeous performance from both of them – and then ceded the stage to Cordero, himself no slouch in the personality department, to stop the show cold with a sly, snazzy, swinging “Winter Wonderland” (Felix Bernard & Richard B. Smith, 1934).

Whether kibitzing with his audience, shamelessly plugging his latest CD, or just quietly standing center stage and knocking “Ave Maria” (Franz Schubert, 1825) out of the park with beautiful simplicity, Lewis was comfortable enough in his own skin to take his show, and his audience, wherever he wanted them to go, and we all followed along willingly because he was so obviously enjoying himself, and he was so damn genuine every single moment of the evening. … And he’s just so damn sexy, too.

CHRISTINE PEDI @ F54B 12/27/18

Show: Snow Business

And then there’s Christine Pedi.

And Barbra. And Bernadette. And Carol. And Elaine, Ethel, Fran, Judy, Liza, Patti…

Perhaps best known for her stunningly accurate impersonations of Broadway, film, and television divas, Christine Pedi is nonetheless a personality in her own right, and in the 11thstaging of her Holiday show, “Snow Business,” it was her own indomitable nature that ran joyfully through the evening, helped now and then by those “other divas.” (The quotes are mine. Not hers.) Not that she needed any help from anyone; she was perfection no matter what she did: not only does she possess a voice that can shake the proverbial rafters, she’s a terrific actress who can switch on a dime, ricocheting gleefully from raucous comedy to moving wistfulness with just the simplest of performance choices. Simply by standing still, she had her audience spellbound with a deeply felt “Silent Night” (Franz Xaver Gruber and Joseph Mohr, 1818); in the next moment she had everyone on the floor gasping for breath with her hilarious “Taco Bell Canon” (Pachelbel, circa 1680), in which two audience members (Andy and Emily) helped her sing the oft-heard counter-melodies with lyrics relating to Taco Bell menu items. Further Pedi as Pedi highlights: “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” (Albert Hague and Theodore Geisel, “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” 1966) – another breathtakingly hilarious moment;  “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” (Irving Berlin, 1952, used in “White Christmas,” 1954); and a tender, moving “The Perfect Year” (Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black, and Christopher Hampton, Sunset Boulevard, 1993).

And then there were the divas. From her “Celebrity Carols,” including a gasp-inducing Judy Garland emoting her way through “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” (English Version: Samuel S. Grossman and Samuel E. Goldfarb, 1896), through to “Twelve Divas,” in which she put her own personal stamp on the “tedious” (her word)  “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (Traditional, circa 1780, Tune ascribed to Frederic Austin circa 1909), she wisely doled them out in neat little bundles nestled in between the larger parcels of personal Pedi fabulousness.  “Twelve Divas,” in particular, has become legendary, and deservedly so. Her ability to go instantly from impersonation to impersonation, all picked out of a bag by random audience members and performed on the spur of the moment, and then do the entire song backwards – flawlessly – was awe-inspiring. (The divas in question were, from Day 1 to Day 12: Angela Lansbury, Liza Minnelli, Maggie Smith, Bette Davis, Fran Drescher, Ethel Merman, Joan Rivers, Bernadette Peters (full disclosure: I was THRILLED to pull that name out of the bag), Patti LuPone, Carol Channing, Katherine Hepburn, and finally, Elaine Stritch.)

It wasn’t just that each impersonation was spot on, or that she and her pianist (Matthew Martin Ward) could adjust the voices, mood, and accompaniment with lightning speed and accuracy, which was impressive enough, but more than that, it showed Pedi’s most remarkable asset: only a performer with such a sure sense of who she is, and what she can do, could allow themselves to get lost in the personas of others, to not only mimic, but become them. And yet never let anyone forget that she was, above all else, Christine Pedi. That’s art.