Ari Axelrod – Self Portrait (of a Serious Man)

“I’d like for you to know me well/To see the face behind the face…” Ari Axelrod sings in tremolo driven tenor. (“Who I’d Be” Jeanine Tesori/David Lindsay-Abaire) “Tonight the songs are the paint and the picture is me. I paint in two primary colors, Judaism and Musical Theater.”

These are serious times and Axelrod is a serious man. With a nod to his run in Fiddler on the Roof at Paper Mill Playhouse, the artist performs one of the very few positive songs in this show, “Miracle of Miracles.” He shoots off sparks and must’ve been a splendid Motel Kamzoil. Still, in his version, lyrics emerge qualified- hopeful rather than convinced. (Jerry Bock/ Sheldon Harnick) “Corner of the Sky” (Stephen Schwartz) follows on its tail: “I want my life to be something more than long…” is an omnipresent theme.

“Flight” (Craig Carnelia) sounds religious. Axelrod tilts his head back, closes his eyes, extends his arms. (Gestures are otherwise small, nuanced.) It’s as if he’s addressing something larger than himself. The song’s last words, a wish to become/experience “before I’m gone,” emerge whispered. “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about time” prefaces the story of life-threatening brain surgery. Stunning as it is in history and music, I’d conjecture most of the sold-out room has heard it before. Reference would’ve sufficed.

Having survived, the young man tackled life with increased gusto. “Everybody Says Don’t!” (Stephen Sondheim) is determined. Lifting the microphone from its stand, he leans out to us moving around the stage. Tone is anthemic, a declaration of independence. I’m unclear how we get to Don McLean’s “Vincent,” but the selection is rarely as emotionally grave as intended. This artist does it justice. Arms at his sides, motionless, he solemnly sings as if Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.

Axelrod is a terrific performer- actor, communicator; vocal control impressive, exacting. From poignant to passionate or angry, he never goes over the top. That which is fraught comes out in lyrics, not volume or demonstrative gestures. High standards are self imposed. Shows are invariably honest and affecting. Dignity is an adjective infrequently applied to cabaret. It describes the solemn side of Axelrod.

The next set of colors is his love life. “Color me dating,” he says. Jason Robert Brown’s “Shiksa Goddess” is apoplectic. “I’m breaking my mother’s heart/The JCC of Spring Valley is shaking/And crumbling to the ground…” The performer bounces, gestures, and falls to his knees. Oh, the pressure! Three songs depict the arc of a relationship: the charming, infatuated “Pancakes for Dinner” (Lizzy McAlpine), a quiet, notably fearful ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” (Carole King), and a tremulous “End of the World” (Matt Alper): “I don’t wanna fall, I don’t wanna fly/I don’t wanna be dangled over/The edge of a dying romance…” The sequence is smartly chosen.

“These colors presented themselves after October 7,” Axelrod tells us referring to Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel. He begins with a prayerful “Lost in the Stars” (Kurt Weill) and ends with the warning “Children Will Listen.” (Stephen Sondheim) “Make Them Hear You” then insists. (Stephen Flaherty/Lynn Ahrens). “In a world that’s pushing us to be as grey as possible, find a way to live vibrantly” introduces Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday.” Do I see a small smile? “I was put here to make something beautiful,” Axelrod sings. (“Something Beautiful” Stephen Flaherty/Lynn Ahrens). It’s a Hallelujah song and might just as well end with “Amen.”

An elderly woman from his local diner is quoted as saying worrying is the 11th commandment. “We deal with this with humor and music,” Axelrod remarks. There’s little but for this anecdote in an unsparing show. The artist currently sees the world darkly. My instinct is to suggest adding respite, something hopeful. Still, this is an authentic artist’s truth.

Jeff Harnar’s direction is deft- expressive and restrained; accompaniment (Lawrence Yurman)
sensitive and supportive with dignity rarely heard in cabaret.

Performance Photos by Jeff Harnar
Opening Photo- Michael Hull

Ari Axelrod – Self Portrait
Director Jeff Harnar
MD/Piano – Lawrence Yurman
315 West 44th Street

About Alix Cohen (1720 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.