Last night, after the theater, we dropped into the piano bar at Don't Tell Mama on West 46th Street. The place was packed, and it's no wonder: The entertainment was sterling but the price was tin. On weeknights, the piano bar entertainment begins at 9:30pm and continues till between 3 and 4am. That's six hours of non-stop music for the cost of two drinks. This is not to say that the management encourages you to stop at two drinks, but you can conceivably sit there and listen to a marathon of some of the best young singers in town for the price of a couple of beers.
The entertainment staff on duty last night consisted of John McMahon at the piano and three singers doubling as bartenders and waiters. They were aided and abetted by performers who work at Mama's on other nights and happened to be in the club, as well as by some exceptionally talented patrons who took advantage of the open mic. We didn't stay until 4am (if we had, you wouldn't be reading this column right now), but we stayed long enough to know that only a stone could have failed to be entertained by this talented crew...and a stone would have to have rocks in its head to think that the Don't Tell Mama piano bar is anything less than pure cabaret.
A piano bar is like a sailboat. At the rudder, steering this delicate vessel, is the piano player. The rest of the crew members hoist their songs like sails, trying to catch the wind of applause. On this night the winds were high--and so was most of the crowd, drinking and enjoying the quick-witted, deadpan humor of McMahon. Not only is he an entertaining presence behind the piano, he is also a talented songwriter; not many composers would have the nerve to perform a brand new song in a raucous piano bar, but McMahon did just that and totally won over the crowd with his tune "I'm a Real New Yorker Now." Besides being a top-notch accompanist, McMahon is a fine performer in his own right.
And what a wonderful mix of performers he accompanied. Anne Steele has a voice that's as beautiful as it is powerful; rare, indeed, is the female belter who sounds as sweet as this lovely young entertainer. Singing "Easy Money" from The Life--with Ira Gassman, the song's lyricist in the audience (the music is by Cy Coleman)--Steele was divine. More of a pop singer than a show tune gal, she also led the patrons in a rousing version of ABBA's "Fernando."
Jonathan Tomaselli is one of the most deliciously elastic of piano bar entertainers, his voice stretching and twisting and bending into any style that's needed. He can turn in a hilarious Liza impression one moment, shift into a rock 'n' roll rendition of "Fools Rush In" the next, and then duet hilariously with Elaine Brier on "Suddenly Seymour" from Little Shop of Horrors. It was, in fact, his duets with his two female partners that best displayed Tomaselli's versatility.
Brier rounds out this trio of Very Ready for Prime Time Players, and she has some very funny shtick to go along with her finely honed musical comedy talents. Wearing her trademark hat, Brier is a pretty picture with a cracked frame (of reference). Her parody version of "You Light up My Life," titled "You Fucked Up My Life," is a scream. (She only sings it after midnight, in deference to the many children who might be drinking at Don't Tell Mama at 11:30 pm.) Brier also joined McMahon for a Jewish version of "Leader of the Pack," and you could have plotzed just from the ad libs. By the way, these two will be gracing Mama's with a regular cabaret act called Jerk de Soleil, every Friday night in May at 9 pm.
Joining the regular Wednesday night crew were two up-and-coming talents who work the club's piano bar on other nights. Bistro Award winner A.J. Irvin took the microphone to sing a William Finn ballad, "What More Can I Say?" that said it all; his beautiful tenor hushed the crowd. Eric Pickering, who just won a MAC Award for his cabaret debut show last year, performed "Then You Look at Me" (James Horner/Will Jennings) like an 11 o'clock number even though it was past midnight. His accompanist was the MAC-Award-winning musical director David Maiocco. There truly seemed to be no end to the talent on hand at the club last night, and that includes the patrons: One person got up and offered a very credible rendition of "Crazy" while another customer put over a swinging version of "Mack the Knife" that included a Satchmo impression.
The piano bar at Don't Tell Mama is always a happening place, and it tends to really kick in just as the nearby Broadway houses are letting out. The deal there isn't just a bargain, it's a Steele--and a Brier, and a Tomaselli, and a McMahon.