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New York Nightlife Gets Livelier

The Siegels catch Mark Nadler and KT Sullivan's Irving Berlin revue at New York's newest cabaret venue, Mama Rose. logo
The much-anticipated new cabaret club Mama Rose opened on Monday, September 15 to a double dose of praise. Both the room and its opening act have dramatically raised the bar for cabaret excellence. Mama Rose is not only a charming new club in appearance, it also offers sound design so exquisite that performers will be clamoring to appear there. And the show that opened the room, the new KT Sullivan/Mark Nadler extravaganza devoted to the life and music of Irving Berlin, is the best revue of its kind that we've ever seen. And we've seen a lot. More on the show below, but first, let's go down the Mama Rose checklist:

Location: Second Avenue between 13th and 14th Streets, on the second floor. The club is clearly not going to get a lot of walk-in trade, but it's great to have such a venue in that part of town.

Bathrooms: Some of the city's clubs have restrooms that range from miserable to monstrous. Those at Mama Rose have a decent amount of room, they're clean, and everything works. Can't ask for more.

Food and Drink: Well, there's no food. Pretzels, we hope, are coming soon. The bar is essentially a copy of the Don't Tell Mama stock but that may change in time as the room defines its own character.

Service: Considering that the room was packed on opening night, the service was excellent.

Lighting Design: Created by Bobby Kneeland, the lighting is warm and attractively atmospheric.

Room Design: The room is a modest-sized rectangle that has been transformed into a showplace. Imaginative music-related sculptures adorn the walls, giving the room a playfully arty appearance. Chris Haley designed the look, and it's plenty worth looking at.

Sound Design: Huzzahs to Damien Conte, who put the sound package together for the club. When all is said and done, this will be one of the room's two most important assets. The other is ...

The Booking Manager: Lennie Watts not only oversaw the creation of this room, he launched it like a rocket with an astonishing show that went off without a single technical glitch -- an amazing feat for a brand new club. More than that, Watts has put together an impressive lineup of talent to fill the Mama Rose stage in the coming months. Those entertainers will, in turn, help fill this room night after night.

The Owners: The Pham family had previously bought two functioning cabaret rooms that they still own and operate, Rose's Turn and Don't Tell Mama. This is the first time they created a club from scratch, and they've done a splendid job. Would a rose by any other name smell (or sound?) so sweet? And, speaking of sweet...

Mark Nadler and KT Sullivan
The Melody Lingers On: Irving Berlin's American Dream is a brilliantly conceived Off-Broadway revue joyfully masquerading as an elaborate, two-hour cabaret show with an intermission. This may well follow in the footsteps of the Gershwin show that KT Sullivan and Mark Nadler originally launched in cabaret and that eventually became a long running Off-Broadway hit. The Gershwin show was quite good, yet the Berlin show far surpasses it in its sophisticated construction. More than that, Sullivan and Nadler have one of the great American love stories to tell in the saga of Irving and Ellin Berlin.

Most musical revues dedicated to the work of one composer or lyricist tell their stories only in relation to the music performed. For instance, if there is an anecdote about the writing of a tune, then that's the only patter you'll hear when that song is performed. Sullivan and Nadler do the opposite: They put Irving Berlin's music in service to the story, weaving the composer's songs in and out of the narrative according to their emotional content. For instance, when they perform "No Strings," they don't put it in the context of Berlin's career or even mention Fred Astaire, who introduced so many of Berlin's songs. Instead, we hear the number as the composer's refusal to get involved with another woman after the tragic early death of his first wife.

We tend to look at Irving Berlin as America's songwriter, his music somehow always right on the pulse of the people. That's the view when you look at his music with a telescope; it's the big picture. Look through the other end of that telescope and you see not a country, but a man and his pains and passions. In this way, Sullivan and Nadler give us the intimate story of a musical colossus.

The show starts with a bit of turnabout as Sullivan plays the piano and Nadler stands at the microphone; the bit is just a tad arch, more about the performers than Berlin, but the act quickly gets into gear and never falters thereafter. It features a zesty smorgasbord of Berlin tunes -- many well known, many rarely heard. Some are performed in their totality; others are woven into evocative medleys that punctuate dramatic arcs in Berlin's life. Nadler's arrangements of these medleys are elegant, imaginative, and seamless.

Sullivan is a delightful musical comedian; she puts over songs like "You'd be Surprised" and "I'm a Dumbell" with a deliciously sly sense of humor, and she can just as easily make you cry as laugh. "Be Careful It's My Heart" is just one of the poignant ballads she delivers with emotional punch. Nadler is exceptional as the primary narrator of the Berlin story, his delivery crisp and his style compelling. A showman in the Jolson style, Nadler brings a sense of urgency to every song he performs. You can't take your eyes off him.

The combination of this exciting new show playing at a brand new club is cabaret nirvana. Both are so clearly successful that, mere hours after the opening, it was announced that The Melody Lingers On will linger on at Mama Rose's: A return engagement is already set for December 1, 2, 3, 9, and 10.

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