The art of cabaret is often considered to have reached its height when a gifted singer performs great songs with sensational arrangements. Well, cabaret also achieves something akin to perfection when a musical comedy madman named Mark Nadler takes on the famous patter song "Tchaikowsky" (Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin) and then proceeds to create a comically brilliant show in which everything flows from the wellspring of the act's title tune.
The act is called Tchaikowsky (and Other Russians) and it had its New York City premiere at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room during the Cabaret Convention. It was part of the Oak Room's Cabaret Cavalcade; but that night, with Nadler at the piano, it was more like a Cabaret Kaleidoscope. He brought color, originality, and an almost infinite sense of possibility to what many people incorrectly believe is an archaic art form.
The act begins with Nadler's performance of "Tchaikowsky," which was one of Danny Kaye's signature songs. It's a blazing opener that sets the stage for Nadler's extraordinary conceit. After singing the song, he notes that people always ask him how he remembers the lyrics, a wild and woolly string of the names of approximately four dozen Russian composers, ranging from the famous to the footnote. He replies that it's easy if you know who the Russian composers are. With that, he launches into a generous one-hour plus act in which he identifies the reason -- musical and/or personal -- why each composer was included in the song. If this description makes the show sound academic or esoteric, let us assure you that it is anything but. Nothing is sacred to Nadler except laughter, and he sings and sasses his way through these Russian composers (and their relationship to Ira Gershwin's lyric) with more relish than you'll find at Nathan's.
As he comically chomps through selections of Russian classical music, Nadler gives us a history lesson we won't soon forget; he also performs about a dozen other songs, many of them far more familiar. He seamlessly connects tunes as disparate as "I Concentrate on You" (Cole Porter), "Only a Broken Heart" (Carol Hall), and "The Ugly Duckling" (Frank Loesser) to his narrative with an almost miraculous ease by placing them in the continuum of music that followed "Tchaikowsky."
Nadler is a performer for whom the word "Big" was invented. Nonetheless, he can be delicate when the music calls upon him to be so. And while his voice isn't the prettiest instrument in cabaret, it is surprisingly expressive. Despite his well earned reputation for edgy, in-your-face humor, he can also do a wonderful job with a passionate ballad. It is, in fact, his ability to modulate his performance style that keeps the driving narrative of this show from exhausting the audience. Nadler packs an amazing amount of research into the act but tosses it off with the brio of a performer who is confident that he will always have more fascinating nuggets of information to impart, better musical examples to make his points, and ever more wonderful songs to sing. That confidence is well-earned.
If anything in the world of New York nightlife is remotely comparable to Nadler's show, it is Rob Kapilow's entertaining deconstruction of standards for Lincoln Center's American Songbook Series. Kapilow will be at it again on November 15 with a Bernstein program featuring performances by Brian d'Arcy James and Ana Marie Andricain, at the Kaplan Penthouse. This is exactly where Mark Nadler's Tchaikowsky (and Other Russians) should be playing next year; it is a first cousin to Kapilow's concept, but from the loopy side of the family. Nadler's show is a natural for the Lincoln Center series because it's a graduate level course on the Great American Songbook and its antecedents, as well as one of the most inspired and entertaining musical comedy acts of this or any other year.
[More reviews by the Siegels can be found at www.cabarethotlineonline.com. For information on the First Annual Nightlife Awards, to be co-presented by Scott Siegel in January at The Town Hall, click here]