When Mark Nadler takes a stage, the word becomes possessive. His natural authority, urbane charisma and complete focus is magnetic. Voices still, heads rivet, people wake up. “…Jan 20, 1960, JFK was sworn in,” the raconteur begins, “Around that time in Waterloo, Iowa, my parents made passionate love. I know this because about 16 years later, my father told me this was the night his condom broke.” Just ONCE in a lifetime… (he launches the first song) “All of my fellow spermatozoa had one thing in mind—carpe diem!” There’s one special moment …(he continues) When fate takes your hand…(Once in a Lifetime-–Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse) The clever intro segues into an easier take on the theme, Comes Once In A Lifetime (Betty Comden/Adolph Green/Jule Styne). Like every other segue and medley, transition is seamless.
The show has barely begun. We’ve already laughed. Crazy 1961 is a celebration of the year of Nadler’s birth, not of his coming into the world, but of the 365 days he joined. Can so much of note have occurred? As it turns out, decidedly, yes. Hey, Jimmy, Joe, John, Jim, Jack (Jay Livingston/Ray Evans), from the failed musical, Let It Ride) is a winsome number made up of fables. Leave it to Nadler to unearth it. See the world through children’s eyes, the chorus recommends. His sincere performance warms the room. Musical arrangement conveys character attributes. Band members chime in with the occasional deadpan line, eliciting further giggles. It’s wry storytelling and subtle admonition: there’s a child now, be aware.
Up from the piano bench (picture the bouncing Tigger), Nadler regales us with a compilation of events occurring in 1961: the transition from the golden age of Broadway to rock n’ roll, the premiere of the iconoclastic corn chip by Frito-Lay and Barbie’s introduction to Ken, among others. (The last is hysterical). There are literary, political, entertainment and pop allusions. In 1961, Jim Bakker married 19 year-old Tammy Faye LaValley. The payoff for this fact-let is Never Trust a Virgin. Not Like a Virgin (Madonna) which would’ve been an easy shot, but a composition by Jacques Offenbach/E.Y. Harburg indicative of both Nadler’s erudition and his raffish style.
Next, with a nod to Martha Stewart (also married in ’61), is Cruella de Vil. The Mel Leven song for the Disney animated feature is interpreted as burlesque. Nadler stands at the piano working his arms and fingers like Jerry Lee Lewis, pumping down hard and clean on the keys. We hear honkey -tonk slides, bumps n’ grinds, and plenty of insinuation. The band is tight and exuberant. Ms.De Vil suddenly becomes a died-in-the-wool vamp. It’s a hoot.
Because his profession takes him away from home, Nadler says, he knows what it is to go to bed far from loved ones. An original and surprising treatment of Dedicated to the One I Love (Lowman Pauling/Ralph Bass) changes the pop tune into a classic ballad. Love Makes the World Go ‘Round (Bob Merrill, from the musical, Carnival), is performed intermittently between brief exposition on the invasion of The Bay of Pigs. Not only does it work, it’s poignant. “Cut your losses and begin once more.” The evergreen, Sail Away (Noel Coward) is reinvented with the introduction of bongos in a jazzy arrangement conjuring back-up dancers. “In 1961, we did that, we sailed away…orbited…” (Ah, now the treatment makes sense.) Adrift on a Star (Offenbach/Harburg) is simply lovely. Guitar, chimes, and clarinet imbue the chestnut with freshness. Nadler imbues it with relevance. Here we are/ Adrift on a star/And what is the journey for? Lyrics are respected. This is key to Nadler’s success in reimagining material: every deviation from the expected serves the song. It’s a dictate that should be engraved on music stands: to serve the meaning and intention of the song.
What is the journey for? “Nureyev defected in 1961…we had Apartheid…Freedom Riders…the birth of our first multi-racial president…” Like Ariadne, whose spun gold thread lead Theseus to the center of the labyrinth and out again, Nadler takes us through historical events, sweet (not saccharine) anecdotes about his birth and parents (more laughter), and back. With meticulous attention, he fits himself in without touting self importance.
A personal translation of Et Maintenant (Gilbert Becaud), which is more philosophic and universal than the familiar English lyric, is followed by the song in French. New understanding gives the song a searching gravitas. Notes elongate like taffy; r’s are rolled. What now—for Nadler at fifty, for his generation, for “us?” It Was a Very Good Year (Ervin Drake) begins wistfully with cymbal brushes, is carried aloft by a muted sax, and expands to full, plummy orchestration. His voice soars.
In honor of the golden anniversary of “the enormous amount of hits from 1961,” Nadler offers a medley of his choice for the top fifty songs.“If we do just a minute for each (good grief!)…so we’re going to go fast, but I’ll keep track for you.” And he does! Whipping through a list organized like a Rommel campaign, holding up and tossing away placards with numbers from 1-50, the thespian sings a dozen different musical genres without missing a beat, a key change or a syllable. Sometimes we get a two-line tease related by theme. Other times songs tail into one another: Why can’t I fall in love/Like any other man/And maybe then I’d know… Who put the stump/ In my rump-ba-bump-ba-bump? Seemingly possessed by spirit, Nadler even performs a swivel-kneed Elvis Presley number in front of the piano. The man has the irrefutable energy of a natural geyser.
Crazy 1961 is a beautifully wrought show, at the same time personal and inclusive. Enormously entertaining, it also offers clear perspective behind narrative and choices. You may find yourself reflecting on the content afterwards. During the performance, however, there’s nothing to do but surrender to the formidable, inventive talent of Mark Nadler and have a helluva good time. My cheeks hurt from grinning. Did I mention he can really sing?
Mark Nadler, vocals, piano; arrangements; musical direction
Sherrie Maricle, drums
Dennis Joseph, reeds
Scott Johnson, guitar
John Loehrke, bass
*SAVE THE DATE: October 13, 2011 (the eve of Mark’s 50th birthday)
Crazy 1961 will be the first half of an evening benefitting Art Start, a charity for which Mark Nadler volunteers and serves on the board. The second half of the evening is yet to be determined, but will certainly include celebrity guests. Tickets are extremely inexpensive — $35.00 a seat for most of the house. Because the benefit is being underwritten, every penny of the ticket price will go to the not-for-profit. They expect to raise 50-60 thousand dollars that night; one third the annual Art Start budget!
Art Start is an extremely worthy program bringing the arts into homeless shelters. Artists volunteer their time, expertise, and guidance to nurture the creativity and talent of children and teens, helping to develop self-expression and raising self esteem through the process of making art. Learning, creating and communicating skills are fostered in a nurturing environment.