It seems like almost every time we catch a quality cabaret act these days, it's at Arci's Place. For instance, we stopped in on a Monday night and there was composer-singer Steve Lutvak performing bright, original new tunes that will take the Great American Songbook into the 21st century. The next night, Karen Saunders opened a one-week run at Arci's Place that ends on January 27. We were there for the first show and, if we could, we'd return again and again. (Click here for schedule and other information.)
An engaging performer with a voice that was born for eleven-o'clock numbers, Saunders has that brassy, theatrical style we love. But there are more than trumpets in her sound, which has the sweet undertones of a reed section. Saunders puts the whole orchestra of her voice to work when she creates an original piece by combining "Old Devil Moon" (Burton Lane/Yip Harburg) with "Maybe This Time" (Kander/Ebb). The mesmerizing effect is of a dramatic build to romantic nirvana, and this is only one of a number of high points. The show spikes even higher when Saunders tells the audience the extraordinary, true story of how composer Ervin Drake (who wrote "It Was a Very Good Year," among a great many other tunes) and his wife, Edith, came to be married. She uses this as a lead-in to the mother of all romantic tunes, "How Deep is the Ocean?" (Irving Berlin).
At her best in power ballads, Saunders wails on "Gone As a Man Can Get (Robbins/Bucchino) and finds the haunting romance in "Le Restaurant" (Brenda Russell). Then there is her often-funny patter (she tells a hilarious story about her incredibly huge shoes). And she can sing funny, too: Her bawdy rendition of a song called "Joe's Joint" has just the right dose of sauciness cut with restraint. Indeed, there is nothing slapdash here. The songs are carefully chosen, the interpretations are impeccable, and Saunders really connects with the audience.
Depending upon whom you ask (Barbara or Scott), musical director Mark Berman's arrangements for this show are either fussy and distracting or original and refreshing. One could argue that they draw too much attention to themselves, or that the tension between Berman's frequently driving rhythms and Saunders' slower, idiosyncratic phrasing in counterpoint helps to create fresh dynamics in familiar songs. Whatever, we both agree that Karen Saunders is one helluva entertainer. And Arci's Place, quite naturally, is the place to see her.
We'll be back at Arci's Place on Monday, January 29 for the latest edition of Cabaret on Record, a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS that is traditionally one of the best such events each year. And we'll be back again at Arci's the very next evening to enjoy the opening night performance of Carol Woods. By the way, you can catch Steve Lutvak on Sunday nights at Arci's in February. Or you can just set up a cot there and catch everybody's shows.
The difference between a singer and an entertainer is the difference between a voice and a presence. We mention this because Eric Comstock doesn't have much of a voice, but he very definitely has a presence. He also has several weeks' worth of shows to go at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room. (Click here for schedule and other information.)
Comstock is in that hallowed tradition of pianist-singers who earn their keep with a winning combination of wit, charm, intelligence, and talent. Bobby Short is the model, Steve Ross is the heir apparent, and Eric Comstock fully emerges here as the star of the next generation. Steeped in the Great American Songbook and the rich heritage from which it grew, he peppers his show with amusing anecdotes and little known facts about the likes of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter. With every carefully planted seed of information, he provides insight into the music and lyrics of these giants--and then he does so again with his often elegantly arranged renditions of their work.
It seem as if Comstock has made a vow to love, honor and obey the creations of Rodgers and Hart when he sings "I Married An Angel," breezily coupled with their lovely "Blue Room." And your heart will stand still when he sings the same team's "My Heart Stood Still." He consistently scores with such ballads as "Waiting at the End of the Road" (Irving Berlin) and such comedy numbers as "Hazel Hips" (Oscar Brown, Jr.) because these songs are lyric-driven, and Comstock knows how to drive a lyric. This is a very bright, self-aware performer who never strays too far from his areas of strength. With a sly, cerebral manner, Eric Comstock is that urbane man from yesteryear who can sit at a piano for an hour and enthrall an audience.