If you're looking for a classy evening of dinner, drinks, cabaret, and sadness you can do no better than Paulo Szot, currently making his 54 Below debut. The midtown cabaret is celebrating Brazil this month, so obviously Broadway's favorite Brazilian baritone had to be there. Szot, who is accustomed to playing massive opera houses like the 4,000-seat Metropolitan Opera, proves that he is just as good, if not better in an intimate space like 54 Below. Hearing such a powerful and resonant voice in close quarters is a rare and not-to-be-missed experience.
From the moment Musical Director and Pianist Matthew Aucoin tickles out the iconic opening from George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," you know that this will be an authentic New York City cabaret experience. Maintaining the Gershwin theme, Szot enters through the front door singing "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess. A rich mix of Broadway tunes, Brazilian favorites, and jazz standards follow, including a samba medley, "Were Thine That Special Face" from Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate, and Bart Howard's "Fly Me to the Moon" (made popular by Frank Sinatra...what true NYC cabaret show would be complete without a little Frank?)
Holding a giant prop book labeled "The Great Broadway Songs for Actors With Accents," Szot launches into a medley that includes "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof, "Money" from Cabaret, and the opening number from The Lion King (which is becoming a real 54 Below favorite). This is the comic highlight in a show dominated by slower and more contemplative love songs.
And boy, does Szot know slow and contemplative love songs. He closes his eyes, intones a complex/emotionally pained lyric, and the audience sighs. He's the Morrissey of Broadway. At the End of "What Kind of Fool Am I?" from Stop the World – I Want to Get Off, a middle-aged woman seated at the bar loudly declared her love for the crooner. Szot casually replied, "Can I meet you after the show?"
Spontaneity is a key ingredient in a good cabaret show. Szot and director Joe Langworth keep the audience surprised when, in the middle of "Too Many Mornings," from Stephen Sondheim's Follies, a special guest (who just happens to be hanging around the neighborhood) joins him on stage to sing Sally's part of the duet. I'll say no more.
Keeping in step with Brazil month, Aucoin has added a distinctly Brazilian flair to some of his arrangements including "Old Devil Moon" from Finian's Rainbow. It really works! Who knew that the music of 20th century Jewish composers (writing in the form of Irish immigrants in the American south) could sound so good set against a bossa nova beat?
Szot is backed up by Aucoin on piano, David Fink on double bass, and David Ratajczak on drums. Fink gives an impressive high-flying (for the bass) bow solo during Szot's sublime rendition of Eden Ahbez's "Nature Boy."
Of course, Szot couldn't get away without singing a song from South Pacific, the show that won him a Tony Award in 2008. Instead of the well-known "Some Enchanted Evening," he opts for Emile's heartbreaking second act number, "This Nearly Was Mine."
This isn't the kind of show that will sing your blues away. The song list leans into feelings of regret and unrequited love. Sometimes you just want to feel sad. If you're in that kind of mood this week, there really is no better place to be than 54 Below and no better guy to hang with than Paulo Szot.