Ari Axelrod wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s also a showman. That these two qualities don’t contradict one another is a testament to the power of authenticity. With this very personal show, the young artist exhibits self awareness, acting and vocal prowess, savvy stagecraft (a single, lit candle, for example, works wonderfully). Choice of often eclectic material relates directly to his through line. Bridging is deft. Axelrod is as much a communicator as entertainer. He appealingly takes risks.
A tandem “Neverland”/“Pure Imagination” opens this evening with tremulous, air brushed emotion. Axelrod looks from face to face gently reeling in his audience. (Jule Styne/Betty Comden/Adolph Green; Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley) The performer defines “aria” as any moment in life where words alone fail to express what we’re feeling. “To elevate these moments, we sing.”
“I believe West Side Story is the eighth wonder of the world,” introduces a completely original rendition of “Cool” with Axelrod accompanying himself on bongo drum. He sheds his jacket, rolls up his sleeves. The terrific arrangement employs flat and side handwork, elbow and arm slides. He’s good. “Just make it cool, boy,” (deep inhalation), reeeal cooool,” Brow is furrowed, focus like a jazz man. (Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim)
Larry Hart was a closeted gay man who apocryphally wrote this song while looking in a mirror, we’re told. One arm on the piano, Axelrod strikes a pose. “My Funny Valentine” emerges delicate, besotted. The artist looks over our heads to an inamorata. Every word lands sincere. Piano is lush without being corny. He’s happy, grateful, hopeful. Lingering vibrato is simply lovely. (Written with Richard Rodgers.)
From Les Misérables (Claude-MIchel Schonberg/Alain Boublil), we hear an inspired take on “Bring Him Home” in Hebrew and English, giving it entirely new and valid context. Arms rise from his sides as if involuntarily, hands fist. “B’shalom,” he says pounding his chest. The prayer elicits chills. Remaining in the lexicon of his roots/religion, Axelrod longs “to bring life to Anatevka just once,” i.e. to play Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. His “If I Were a Rich Man” (Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick) resonates with tone and gesture, but needs a few years of experiential gravitas (and padding.)
The show’s centerpiece is a masterful weaving together of “The Cure” (Benjamin Scheuer from The Lion),“Holding to the Ground” (from Falsettos by Williaml Finn) and “How Glory Goes” ( from Floyd Collins by Adam Guettel). Axelrod calls it “Surgery Medley.” (Arrangement- Alex Rybeck and Axelrod) It’s a scene-in-one that attempts to share the artist’s experience with life threatening brain and spine surgery. Though not a fan of “wandering” music, I can’t help being arrested by the piece. Its journey is wrenching, music and lyrics a challenge the performer meets head on. Songs by William Finn and Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin act as epilogue.
Brimming with freshly appreciated life, “Everybody Says Don’t” (Stephen Sondheim) clocks in as buoyant evangelism. A heartwarming story about his beloved dog Leo leads to what Axelrod imagines his best friend might say if he could speak: “Not While I’m Around” (Stephen Sondheim). He sings tenderly, Leo actually cradled in his arms. John Bucchino’s “Unexpressed,” leaves the room in thrall. “Being Alive” (Stephen Sondheim) follows with longing as the night the day.
The artist closes with a wistful version of “Over the Rainbow” (Harold Arlen/EY Yip Harburg) of which even Julie Wilson might approve. (She famously said no one should attempt the song after Judy Gardland.)
Lawrence Yurman has an eloquent piano touch and seems to breathe with Axelrod. Even familiar songs are given subtle distinctive coloration. A fine collaboration.
Photos by Helane Blumfield
Ari’s Arias: Ari Axelrod at Birdland Theater
MD/Accompanist- Lawrence Yurman
Creative Consultant- Jeff Harnar