Paulo Szot at the Cafe Carlyle
(© Samuel Hough)
Paulo Szot at the Cafe Carlyle
(© Samuel Hough)
In its purest form, cabaret is meant to be a deep expression of the performing artist, but with the enormous cover and food charges found in Manhattan's major clubs, one is never completely surprised if audience-pleasing compromises have been made. But none, I suspect, are to be found in An Evening with Paulo Szot, now at the Cafe Carlyle, which marks the Tony Award-winning theater and opera star's first foray into this particular art form. The show is often thrilling, occasionally baffling, but unmistakably personal.

The dashingly handsome, gorgeously-voiced Szot spent much of the past 2 1/2 years playing French planter Emile de Becque in South Pacific, but he is of Brazilian heritage, a fact which informs his entire show. Indeed, he bookends his show with his signature tunes from South Pacific, "Some Enchanted Evening" and "This Nearly Was Mine," both done in Latin-tinged jazz arrangements that breathe new life into the songs, while admittedly draining a little bit of their emotional power.

The same feelings come across with a similar take on "If I Loved You" -- which sounds quite different here from the many overly ponderous versions of this classic show tune; while a surprisingly fast, samba-inflected rendition of "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" turned the Lerner & Loewe standard (from My Fair Lady) into a truly happy love song without its customary touch of bittersweetness.

Much of the program was performed either in Szot's native Portugese or in Spanish, including four tunes by the great Antonio Carlos Jobim and the supernal Mexican standard "Besame Mucho," and whether or not one could understand the lyrics, Szot's passion shone through. Indeed, during these selections, Szot seemed more comfortable, physically, than in other moments, where he could appear a tiny bit stiff.

Nonetheless, that same ardor and commitment could be found in hauntingly beautiful renditions of such English-language standards as "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," "So In Love," "Make Someone Happy," and, especially, "Nature Boy."

Where Szot shone brightest, however, were on two Lerner & Loewe songs that suit his voice and demeanor as perfectly as one could wish: "Gigi" and "If Ever I Would Leave You" (which was a surprise encore). Technically, Szot is too old to play either Gaston or Lancelot, but if any savvy producers want to overlook that fact, I have no doubt anyone who attends An Evening With Paulo Szot will be lining up to buy tickets faster than you can desafinado.