The cool and classy James Naughton has brought his new cabaret act to the Café Carlyle and he puts it over stylishly, despite the fact that the show isn't nearly as polished as his award-winning show of a couple of seasons back. This two-time Tony winner knows how to play his musical cards even when he isn't holding aces. His patter may meander, he might not be in the best voice, and not every arrangement works like gangbusters, but the man has so much presence and personality--not to mention talent--that he carries the night.
The show begins with an uninspired rendition of "Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home" by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, but Naughton quickly recovers with Cole Porter's "I Concentrate on You." Here, he comes in low under the radar, combining a sexy crooner's charm with a theater veteran's interpretative savvy in a surprisingly effective performance. Then the show dips again with a couple of mediocre tunes presented in jarring arrangements; Naughton's hipster rendition of "On the Sunny Side of the Street," for example, has a distancing effect. Finally, though, the evening turns around sharply with Naughton's delicate, romantic rendition of Randy Newman's "Marie." Creating a slightly tipsy character to sing "I will always love you, Marie," Naughton is at his most charming.
From a musical point of view, the act only gets better and better from that point on. "Makin' Whoopee" (Donaldson/Kahn), rarely thought of as a story song, is given its full scope in a slow, pungent reading, and Naughton goes on to score with virtually everything else he sings throughout the evening. From his original take on "My Attorney Bernie" (Dave Frishberg) to his show-stopping "Invitation to the Blues" (Tom Waits), he is amusing and smoldering by turns.
The most notable problem of the show is Naughton's patter. In his earlier cabaret act, Naughton told hilarious stories of his life in the theater; each anecdote was a winner, getting laughs and setting up songs all at the same time, whereas the patter in the present show often appears to have no point. When Naughton talks about his wife's Christmas shopping versus his own way of buying gifts, it's bland stuff. Even a funny bit about the actor Robert Ryan nailing all the windows and doors on a set shut so that a particularly pompous actor could not exit a scene ultimately trails off. To his credit, Naughton can take an aimless story and invest it with enough charm to keep an audience interested. Still, a sharper script would help this show immeasurably.
Already of immeasurable help is the four-piece band that plays for Naughton. On the night we were there, Kenny Ascher filled in for the show's musical director/pianist, John Oddo. Ascher was exquisite on the piano, while Steve Laspina on bass, Gerry Niewood on woodwinds, and Dave Ratajczak on drums also filled the Café Carlyle with beautiful sounds. However, the most beautiful sounds came from Naughton himself: When he swoops down into his lower register, his voice is exceptionally rich and resonant, perfectly in sync with a stage personality that combines manly cool with a relaxed sophistication.
Naughton's show continues at the Carlyle through May 4; click here for further information.
[Ed. Note: As of this week, the Siegels will be providing increased coverage of the NYC cabaret scene for TheaterMania, as this column will now appear every Tuesday and Friday. You can also find additional cabaret reviews by the Siegels at Stu Hamstra's www.cabarethotlineonline.com]