"Why the hell is Barney Miller singing?" These are the first words spoken by Hal Linden after he sings a medley of standards (including Johnny Mercer and Jerome Kern's "I'm Old Fashioned") in the opening moments of his Café Carlyle debut, Hal Linden Live in Concert. Younger readers will be forgiven for not recognizing this reference to the titular character of a sitcom that hasn't had a new episode in over three decades. Viewers over 50, however, will doubtlessly remember the sensible New York City cop famously played by Linden. He recalls this time on television, and so much more, in a very special night of cabaret.
The theme for the evening is nostalgia, and Linden delivers in droves. The orchestra establishes the tone from the very beginning with an instrumental medley that includes not only "The Way We Were" by Marvin Hamlisch and "I Remember It Well" by Lerner and Loewe, but also strains of "Memory" from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats.
Linden shares plenty of his own memories, including his 1957 Broadway debut, Bells Are Ringing, which he commemorates with a medley of songs. He also reprises his 1971 Tony Award-winning performance as Meyer Rothschild in Bock and Harnick's The Rothschilds. He goes so far as to put on makeup and a costume (complete with vintage 19th-century kippah) for the two numbers he performs from this show — a rare treat considering it's a role he originated and there's likely not a revival in the works anytime soon.
For a man of 83 Linden is in exceptionally good form. He sashays across the stage with the energy of someone half his age. His voice is clear and steady, reaching for the high notes (for a baritone) and sustaining the long ones with great ease. There's something gentle and sweet in every moment of his delivery. He buttresses many of his stories with the phrase, "That was a long time ago," playfully inviting the audience to respond, "How long ago was it?" This is the call-and-response of theater war stories, the Sunday mass of showbiz.
He hits the audience with the full force of his nostalgic schmaltz in the show's latter half. Neil Sedaka's "The Hungry Years" is a highlight, as is Jerry Herman's "The Best of Times" from La Cage aux Folles. You'll be tempted to sing along as you recall your own fond and fading memories.
Linden's finale number features completely rewritten lyrics to "I'm Still Here" from Follies. Linden references FDR, Howdy Doody, and Elvis, among a dozen other pop-culture references from the last century. If Stephen Sondheim had written "We Didn't Start the Fire," this is what it would sound like.
A seven-piece band conducted by music director Arthur Azenzer undergirds the evening. This feels positively gargantuan in the cozy confines of the Carlyle. It also reaps unexpected and delightful benefits, like when a flash Dixieland jam session breaks out onstage, with Linden on the clarinet. Like an old-time bandleader, Linden switches from clarinet to vocals, playing a medley of hits by the "King of Swing" Benny Goodman, including "Stompin' at the Savoy" and "Sing, Sing, Sing."
Even if you were born after 1970, you're likely to get a lot of joy out of this heartfelt and skillfully performed show. Linden is like a singing, clarinet-playing, makeup-donning version of your favorite great uncle, the one with all the stories about "the olden days." You didn't have to be there to appreciate this musical stroll down memory lane.