Chita-Rivera

Cast Party—An Embarrassment of Riches

Chita-Rivera

Jim Caruso threw a party and everyone came. What can you say about a program that opens with Chita Rivera and ends with Liza Minelli? In between, the audience at Town Hall enjoyed performances from a galaxy of stars—Hilary Kole (see our WAT profile), Lucie Arnaz, Larry Gatlin, Marilyn Maye—each bringing a personal best to the festivities. Produced by Scott Siegel, proceeds from The Best of Jim Caruso’s Cast Party went to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, a nonprofit with a loyal following in the theater community. Add the fact that the uber-talented Billy Stritch was at the piano, along with Steve Doyle on bass, and Daniel Glass on drums, and this evening was a night to remember.

Caruso and Stritch, longtime friends, are a dynamic duo, with a humorous, easy-going rapport that got the evening off on a high note. Brilliant at improv—Stritch at the piano and Caruso with a song lyric—the two injected spontaneity into the performances. In other words, the audience never knew what to expect, a hallmark for Caruso’s Cast Party, now in its eighth year, currently staged at Birdland.

Chita Rivera, in a sexy black dress dripping with fringe, was the opening act, singing My Wish for You—I hope the days come easy and the moments pass slow, And each road leads you where you want to go. Rivera told the audience that even before Caruso extended the invitation to perform, she was onboard. Anything, she said, for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

Christopher Sieber, whose Broadway credits include everything from Billy Flynn in Chicago, to Lord Faarqaad in Shrek The Musical, came onstage finishing up a game of Angry Birds on his iPhone. He introduced the audience to a new, quirky “Stalker Song,” with a young man professing his over-the-legal-limit love for a certain girl. Very, very funny. Karen Ziemba, who has starred in numerous Broadway musicals—42nd Street and The Most Happy Fella, among them—took the mood upbeat with a jazz standard.

During the evening, the audience met several talents to come out of Caruso’s Cast Party. Aaron Weinstein showed up at Birdland one Monday evening with his violin. Caruso confessed no one knew what to expect and soon discovered an incredible talent. Weinstein began his act with a tribute to Jack Benny, complete with squeaky strings. This humorous display soon morphed into a performance worthy of the Philharmonic. Weinstein, dressed in appropriate “geeky” garb, got through the two parts without cracking a smile or acknowledging the laughter and applause from the audience. Jack Benny would have loved it.

Another Cast Party discovery, Natalie Douglas, charmed with a touching rendition of The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face. (Douglas will perform at the Metropolitan Room this Friday, February 25, in a benefit performance for Tanya Holt and her family, who recently lost their home in a fire. www.metropolitanroom.com). Later in the evening, William Blake, who performed at Birdland when Michael Feinstein was in the audience, and, as a result, will soon sing with Feinstein at Carnegie Hall, showed the crowd he is no flash in the pan with his rousing performance of Come on Home.

The low point in the evening came with the appearance of Real New York Housewife LuAnn de Lessups, who is using the reality show to launch a singing career. She admitted to being nervous, with good reason. While she looked lovely and managed to get through her song (L is for the way you look at me…), her voice faltered and at times fell flat.

Fortunately, the next performer more than made up for this lapse. Jenna Esposito, adorable in a sparkly, black dress with a hot pink sash, brought along two back up singers, a saxophone player, and a guitarist. She brought down the house with her performance of Where the Boys Are, the Connie Francis song from the film of the same name. The audience longed for more, but the show had to go on.

Next up: Lisa Mordente, coincidentally, the daughter of Chita Rivera. Expectations were high and Lisa didn’t disappoint with her beautiful interpretation of Breaking Up Is Hard to Do—Don’t take your love away from me….

Daughters with famous mothers seemed to be a sub-theme of the night as Lucie Arnaz took the stage. And her daughter, Katharine Luckinbill, who had her cabaret debut at Don’t Tell Mama in December, was in the audience. Arnaz looked beautiful, clad in a short, dazzling hot pink dress, her long legs shown off to great advantage. She gave a tease of her dancing skills, too, as she moved around the stage while singing It’s All Right with Me. What would be all right with us—a Lucie Arnaz cabaret show in New York soon, and a cabaret show with her daughter.

How fitting was it to hear Marilyn Maye sing, I’m Still Here? Yes, she is, and her fans couldn’t be happier. At 82, Maye is still performing and, as Caruso observed, has never sounded better. No need to whisper those lyrics when you still have that power. Resplendent in a glittery blue top, Maye delivered her message loud and clear.

Hilary Kole, fresh from her recent performance at Birdland (see our review), showed why she is one of cabaret’s biggest stars with How Do You Keep the Music Playing. Joined by Caruso with Stritch doing what he does best, this interlude was worth the price of admission.

Saxophonist Dave Koz, a late addition to Cast Party, brought a mellow mood with Somewhere Over the Rainbow, followed by the Dueling Fiddlers, dueling banjos for violins. Both of these instrumental acts fit in quite nicely with an evening of vocalists. There was a mixture of singing and dance when Hinton Battle sang while two dancers from the Mark Stuart Dance Company performed a sexy and acrobatic number.

“Miranda Sings,” a YouTube sensation, also is a Cast Party discovery. She explained that she has now added magic to her act and proceeded to sing while Caruso thrust a sword through her neck. One of those “you had to be there” moments.

Sally Mayes brought her Texas charm and humor to that Baby Boomer anthem, There’s Viagra in the Water. Believers seeking miracles, the Pilgrims came in hordes, The waters of Viagra grew more popular than Lourdes. Continuing that Texas theme, Larry Gatlin, seated on a stool, playing his guitar, sang a selection from Urban Cowboy.

Then it was time for Liza. Truth be told, this was not her best performance, something she attributed to just getting off a plane. Yet her On Such a Night Like This was good enough to bring tears to the eyes and she had the crowd on its feet with one of her signature songs, New York, New York.

All in all, it was a New York kind of night. One where the kind of talent that rises to the top in the Big Apple came together for a worthy cause. Each performer left everything on that stage and the audience loved it. So, thank you Jim Caruso and Billy Stritch. The evening truly lived up to its billing.

Following photos by Maryann Lopinto:
“Miranda Sings”
Chita Rivera (second photo)
Christopher Sieber
Aaron Weinstein
LuAnn de Lesseps
Lisa Mordente
Dave Koz

See our previous story on Jim Caruso and Cast Party.

For more information on Cast Party go to the Birdland website.

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