Carol Woods was recently on tour with Chicago (as Mama Morton) for more than three years. She performed one solo number at each performance, but that wasn't nearly enough for her--or for her fans. Now that she's back in New York, she told an adoring opening night audience at Arci's Place, she wants to sing as much as she can. Count yourself among the lucky if she sings for you during her four week run at that estimable Park Avenue South cabaret room/restaurant.
Speaking of things estimable, Woods has a voice that's as full service as a five-star hotel. She can sing most anything she sets her mind to. From ballads like "Alfie" (Bacharach/David) to bawdy comedy numbers like "If I Can't Sell It, I'm Gonna Sit Down On It" (Hill/Razaf), Woods commits herself body and soul. But this Broadway musical veteran (Smokey Joe's Café, Grind, Big River, etc.) has more than a thrilling voice; she also interprets lyrics with originality and intelligence. And she has even more than that to offer. When an entertainer is capable of knocking your socks off with her singing, the last thing you expect is that she'll then tickle you with her wicked sense of humor.
The only thing to complain about in Woods' show is the opening number, "Come Rain or Come Shine." Here she sings to (and about) the audience, "You're gonna love me/Like nobody's loved me," which sounds a little arrogant to us. To be fair, she also serenades the audience with the companion lyric, "I'm gonna love you/Like nobody's loved you," which makes the song more palatable. Still, as rousingly as the number is performed, it creates the image of a self-important diva--and that simply isn't Carol Woods. After that initial stumble, however, the show immediately takes off and never falters again, revealing the real Woods in all her musical theater glory.
Written and directed by Jack Wrangler, this act is full of surprises, the most inspired being a medley not of songs but of dialogue from shows in which Woods has appeared. The juxtaposition of sentences, complete with quicksilver character changes to reflect the speaker, is a tour de force of comic acting. Another wonderful surprise is Woods' rendition of "Bless This House" (Taylor/Morgan), the religious song so many of us grew up singing in grade school. The big difference here is that the house she's singing about isn't the house of the Lord, it's the house of music. In this lovely and poignant moment, Woods is singing about Arci's Place. The song is a moving acknowledgement of how much she, as a high priestess of cabaret, and we, its parishioners, find truth and beauty in a hallowed hall of song like Arci's Place.
One element of Woods' show that isn't a surprise is the way she can turn into a musical cyclone. Witness her room-spinning version of "Blues in the Night" (Mercer/Arlen): The number burns like a blue flame. It's the kind of performance that creates fans for Carol Woods; but it's a show like this, in its rich variety, that cements that fandom. Musical director James Sampliner deserves considerable credit for his fresh arrangements and his sensitive, elegant piano playing. He and Woods work together like a couple of tango dancers, each stepping around the other with a sophisticated precision that is a joy to experience.
Woods, of course, is one of the stars of the upcoming Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's Follies. In the audience on opening night of her show were a number of her costars from that production, including Polly Bergen and Betty Garrett, not to mention its director, Matthew Warchus. By the way, the title of Woods' show is Stick Around! Let's hope she does.