Christine Ebersole: After the Ball
The Tony-winning actress returns to Café Carlyle with a new show.
You know you're in the presence of a seasoned performer from the very first moments of Christine Ebersole's new show at Café Carlyle, After the Ball. Wearing a simple black dress, she glides into the room to the opening strains of Charles K. Harris' "After the Ball," an 1891 Tin Pan Alley megahit in three-four time. It's a sweet and subtly sad waltz about regrets and lost opportunities that come with getting older. What is the two-time Tony Award winner, who describes herself as "perilously nearing dotage," trying to tell us?
Truly, if Ebersole is slipping, she gives no sign of it in this masterful performance. At the age of 63, she exhibits a control over her instrument practically unparalleled in the industry. After starring opposite Patti LuPone in War Paint at Chicago's Goodman Theater, she's back at the Carlyle, which has been a regular haunt for her over the past several years. We can understand why: Her tonal perfection and ability to specifically color a phrase allows her to boost a song into the stratosphere; it also causes us to regularly become verklempt. As far as cabaret acts go, this is as close to perfection as it gets.
After singing a lovely legato rendition of "The Way You Look Tonight," Ebersole has us in hysterics with a medley of "Look at That Face" (by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newly) and Susan Werner's acerbic take on plastic surgery, "What Did You Do to Your Face?" Meant to convey the feelings of a woman looking in the mirror at three different ages, the number goes from narcissistically charmed to horrified to completely incredulous, all within the span of a few minutes.
Fans won't be surprised to learn that Ebersole commits to the dramatic thrust of each song as if she were on the Broadway stage. Her rendition of "Lazy Afternoon" from The Golden Apple is highly emotional and technically very impressive, as Ebersole deftly performs her vocal acrobatics. She sings a medley of Joni Mitchell's "Little Green" and Rodgers & Hart's "Wait Till You See Her" dedicated to the birth mothers of Ebersole's three adopted children: The moment feels very personal and we feel privileged to be sharing it with her. If that doesn't make you cry, her tender interpretation of Frank Loesser's "Inchworm" definitely will.
The show isn't a complete sob-fest, of course: Ebersole's energetic delivery of Al Jolson's "Toot, Toot, Tootsie! (Good-bye)" features a whistling interlude that seems to capture all the requisite mania of vaudeville. Ebersole is so joyful in her swinging delivery of "My Baby Just Cares for Me," you may feel the urge to sing along — she makes everything look fun and effortless.
A lot of credit should go to music director Lawrence Yurman, whose arrangements are smartly intuitive in their illustration of the material. Seated at the piano, Yurman tickles the ivories in a soft, almost rain-like introduction to the Gershwins' "'S Wonderful." Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf's resonant cello practically weeps the word "sorrow" in "Little Green." Larry Saltzman's assertive banjo accompaniment on "Ready to Begin Again" really accentuates the song's neo-Weimar mystique (Saltzman also plays guitar).
Ebersole stands in front of the band during that Leiber and Stoller number, feigning senility as she sings about storing her teeth in a glass and her hair in a drawer. When an audience member requested a number from "War Paint," calling it her "anthem," she responded, "Yes, it's all about aging." She may be a very talented actress, but I'm not buying any of it: Ebersole is a Broadway broad at the top of her game and nothing will convince me otherwise, certainly not after this incredible night of story and song.