New York glitters just a little bit brighter whenever Steve Ross is in town. He's performing now at a swank new venue in the Stanhope Hotel on Manhattan's Upper East Side. It's a wonderful match of entertainer and venue because "swank" is the perfect word for Ross, as well. There is no other cabaret performer who more effortlessly conveys a bygone image of sophisticated New York nightlife; in fact, the era doesn't seem to be bygone when Ross sits at the piano and sings. When the lights are low and he's performing, you can imagine yourself in a 1920s nightclub, surrounded by the smart set and hearing hot new tunes of the day by the likes of Cole Porter and Irving Berlin.
Still, Ross is very much aware of changing times and styles. He isn't a slave to the classics of the Great American Songbook, he is simply one of its best interpreters. He can (and does) apply the skills noted above to the work of more recent songwriters like Jerry Herman, Stephen Sondheim, and Henry Mancini.
The keynote of any Steve Ross show is its sense of humor. Ross is a witty performer who very quickly establishes a sly comic tone, both in his patter and his song selections. Early in the new act, he dryly tells the audience that he's going to perform "Songs I learned at my mother's knee and other low joints." One of the songs he might have picked up at his mother's knee is Cole Porter's "A Marvelous Party," which he delivers with a marvelous balance of tone and ptomaine. Ross represents truth in advertising because he then comes through with a song that he might well have picked up in one of those "low joints," a hilariously bawdy and sensationally silly number called "Dolphins Do it for Fun."
Ross's voice does not soar, nor does it have a particularly pleasing timbre. Yet, despite these limitations, he delivers songs in impressively varied ways. Between his sensitive ballad arrangements and his fresh interpretations of standards, this artist seems to reinvent himself every time he launches into a tune. The "Dolphin" number aside, most of his selections for the Stanhope show tend toward the tender -- for example, "All the Things You Are," in which a quiet, romantic longing is palpable just below the surface of his restrained performance. One of the show's highlights is a haunting rendition of "I've Got You Under My Skin" that definitely got under our skin. And Ross's arrangement and performance of "99 Miles from L.A." linked with "Two for the Road" is unforgettable: The sequence begins at a slow tempo but soon Ross steps on the gas, desperately racing toward love. Here's a performance that almost requires the use of a seat belt.
Steve Ross continues at the Stanhope at least through December. Catch him there if you want a full, clear demonstration of why he is a cabaret star.
[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]