Let yourself be charmed. It’s not a chore; indeed, it’s pretty much unavoidable. Celia Berk exudes gracious warmth on top of a smooth, meaty mezzo and an impeccable choice of material and sidemen. Things are apparently falling into place for her in her life now so perhaps it is easy for her to generate her smile from deep in her heart – but those of us in its radiance don’t have to concern ourselves with its source, only its glow.
Berk performed at the Metropolitan Room on November 23 and will appear twice more in coming weeks. Make a reservation. On the 23rd she was accompanied by three superb musicians, established professionals in their own right: Alex Rybeck as musical director and on piano, Michael Goetz on bass and Sean Harkness on Guitar. However, aside from two brief and lovely guitar solos during “The Folks on the Hill” and “You Can’t Rush Spring,” these gentlemen were there solely to accompany Berk.
Apparently Berk came late to professional singing but she is no beginner. Among other marks of a mature artist she has chosen mostly little known works of unusual appeal. Some of Berk’s song choices were so notable that they deserve particular mention. She opened with a sophisticated and silky rendition of “I’ve Been Waiting All My Life” from Ballroom (music by Billy Goldenberg and lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman), unrecorded since the making of the show album. On that basis I anticipated an engaging but more academic evening than ensued. Ah yes, I was wrong; again I was wrong. The next number was Lew Spence’s “What’s Your Name” [“and will you marry me”], a charming, smart and very funny song originally written for Bobby Short and only recently getting well-deserved more frequent play.
Berk has a winning way with humor, spontaneous, scripted or composed, and broke up the house with a rendition of Hubert Arnold’s and Lew Spence’s “Such a Wonderful Town” about a disastrous relationship begun and ended in Mamaroneck. Her performance of a medley of “Penthouse Serenade” (Will Jason and Val Burton) and “Stairway to the Stars” (Matt Malenck and Frank Signorelli) revealed a gentle vibrato and a fresh poignancy. The following number was a largely unheard Sondheim gem (or “Sondheim song” – used interchangeably) called “Sand” from the unproduced Singing Out Loud. The plot of Singing Out Loud has “Sand” as part of a bad musical, so it could not have the polish of a typical Sondheim piece – it has some intentionally awkward poetry; but it also has the pathos, creative rhyming and wry humor of Sondheim at his best.
The next number was an early Irving Berlin song: “Yiddisha Nightingale” which revealed operatic highlights in Berk’s voice, a self-aware borscht belt sensibility, an engaging family anecdote and a nice sense of comic timing. The audience was roaring with laughter. The ensuing number was “The Broken Record” by Cliff Friend, Charlie Tobias, and Boyd Bunch. Despite fifty years of interest and involvement with theatrical and cabaret music, I had never heard this one before. Like the sadly excluded Echo Song from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, this number uses a once common technical foible (there an echo, here a skipping record) to marvelously reinforce the yearning of the lyric. I was so taken with the song that I failed to note much about the performance except that it captivated. This was followed by what I would term the only “standard” of the evening, “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” complemented by a too brief guitar solo by Sean Harkness.
Toward the end of the show, Berk performed an Ann Hampton Callaway song: “You Can’t Rush Spring” – making clear to those in the audience, through a radiant smile and a short personal tale, that she had reached a springtime in her own life after patiently waiting for the parts to fall into place. The song was made special by her ownership of the sentiment and her obvious joy at that moment and in that place.
Berk was gracious and appreciative to her audience, her musicians, the Met Room staff – and none of it seemed forced or artificial in any way; nor did her humor. If you are a fan of cabaret and have not heard Celia Berk, I suggest that you make the effort. Celia Berk is singing again at the Metropolitan Room on November 30 at 7 p.m. and on December 6 at 4 p.m.
Photos by Fred Cohen; to see more of Cohen’s photography, see Fred Cohen Photography.