In the world of big-room cabaret, where three-figure-per-person tabs are downright obligatory, predictability and reliability have become virtues prized by owners and audiences alike. When it comes to the mother-and-son duo of Sandy Stewart and Bill Charlap, whose new show, Make Me Rainbows, marks their fifth engagement at the Algonquin Hotel’s Oak Room, you know exactly what you’re paying for before the lights dim.
From Stewart, there’s a deep commitment to lyrics tied to a modest but effective vocal range, used most effectively on contemplative ballads; from Charlap, one of the world’s great jazz pianists, there’s impeccable musicianship used primarily in support of his mother and their song selections, until late in the show when he’s briefly allowed to let loose as a solo artist. (His choices vary nightly; last evening, he played an infectious improvisation on Harry Warren’s “The More I see You,” followed by a pair of lesser-known Vernon Duke ditties, “A Penny for Your Thoughts” and “Not a Care in the World.”)
What there isn’t — and perhaps not everyone finds this lacking — is an abundance of warmth or personality on display, nor a single word of between-song patter. (At the show’s end, an audience member spontaneously asked Stewart to recall her first engagement at the Oak Room — a request that was quickly rebuffed.)
Her lack of verbosity doesn’t matter when she attacks a song like “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” “Last Night When We Were Young,” “All in Fun,” or “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” Few singers share Stewart’s gift for clear-eyed poignancy, and in these songs, pathos reigns supremely over bathos, making them deep personal statements. She also effectively emphasizes the meaning behind theater standards like “My Ship” and “I’ve Got the Sun in the Mornin’,” almost forcing listeners to focus on the words for the first time.
Stewart’s minimalist technique, not surprisingly, doesn’t always do full justice to the act’s more uptempo tunes, such as the Gershwin’s “Love Walked In,” and the title tune, a charming love song by John Williams and the Bergmans. Fortunately, she adds a dash of coquettishness to “Tea for Two,” and a soupcon of sass to “Some of These Days” that make those numbers more memorable, but both are far from definitive versions. Then again, the duo’s fans aren’t expecting they will be.