Mario Cantone at Café Carlyle
The comedian and Broadway star makes his Café Carlyle debut.
My sides still hurt. I laughed for nearly 90 minutes straight during Mario Cantone's debut performance at the Café Carlyle, which might just be the funniest act ever to play the vaunted supper club. Cantone is a screaming queen in the best sense, exploding like a supernova of campy gay references and Italian-American rage. In the intimate, staid dining room at the Carlyle, that makes for one of the most unforgettable nights of cabaret I've ever witnessed.
Cantone is most widely known for his portrayal of a gay wedding planner in the Sex and the City universe. Broadway audiences remember his unhinged performance as Samuel Byck in the 2004 Broadway revival of Assassins. At his Carlyle show, Cantone lives up to the title of his 2004 Broadway solo show (Laugh Whore) with a program that is mostly stand-up with a smattering of song.
He opens with "The Greatest Performance of My Life," an audacious number made popular by none other than Dame Shirley Bassey (for whom Cantone warmed up the crowd during her 1993 Carnegie Hall engagement). Tom Kitt's arrangement sports a disco beat that revs us up for Cantone's idiosyncratic mania.
In the stand-up portion of the show (which is the majority), he sounds off on the Kardashians ("Kim, Khloé, and Khlamydia"), our president ("the orange Mallomar"), and his own diminishing star power ("I'm so glad I'm here instead of doing a reality show"). These are just some of his tamer, more printable observations. Cantone exhibits an immediate familiarity with the crowd that makes us feel like we're sitting with him in a bar, spilling tea and casting shade. This expletive-laced act is decidedly more risqué than what we typically hear at the buttoned-up Café Carlyle, where a jacket is still required for men to enter the dining room (even in June). By the middle of the show, Cantone has removed his jacket and unbuttoned his shirt to a low middle button, adopting a Taxi Driver-era Robert De Niro demeanor in his banter with the table closest to the stage: "I was just playing gay to sabotage my career," he says with a jovial bounce of his shoulders.
Lest you think this show is all outsize screeds and celebrity impersonations, know that Cantone's show is backed by some big guns of the musical theater: None other than Mary-Mitchell Campbell (one of Broadway's foremost music directors) sits at the piano leading the band (which includes Craig Magnano on guitar and Damien Bassman on drums). It's fun to watch this tight group of pros rock out behind Cantone as he belts the Barry Mann-Cynthia Weil pop ditty "Make Your Own Kind of Music."
Cantone has certainly taken that song to heart. The program features two original songs by Cantone's husband, Jerry Dixon. There's "Pam," a raunchy Bruce Springsteen knockoff about a "non-stick girl." There's also "Rewrite History," a jazzy tune about malleable reality that Cantone performs as Liza Minnelli. Surreally, Cantone sings the standard "When You're Smiling" as a duet between Liza and Judy Garland, switching characters every other line. Heritage of Pride has nothing on Cantone's one-man parade.
Other highlights of the show include an uproarious rendition of "Is That All There Is?" performed as Peggy Lee. Cantone inserts his own over-the-top catastrophic monologues between the choruses, demonstrating just how porous the border between comedy and tragedy really is. He channels Mae West for his zippy rendition of the Connie Francis number "Looking for Love," a combination that works surprisingly well.
Cantone is irreverent, politically incorrect, and completely hilarious. His energetic synthesis of music and comedy harks back to the vaudevillians of yesteryear. He's playing the Carlyle for only four nights and one of them is already gone, so drop everything you're doing and get over there while you still can.