The weather outside was frightful, but the Beach Café was delightful on the evening of December 19. The ubiquitous Alex Rybek arranged and Celia Berk, Ari Axelrod, Kevin Dozier and Karen Oberlin sang some traditional holiday songs and many novelties, with a dollop of schmaltz and a nod to Kwanzaa. The program was playful and, if one paid attention, a true diversion from current politics and the commercialism of the holidays.
Rybek opened with “The Bell that Couldn’t Jingle” (Bacharach/Kusick) from behind the piano – to bring on Karen Oberlin, resplendent in holiday-appropriate sparkles. She began with “The Man with the Bag” (Stanley/Taylor/Brooks), written in 1950 but new to me, with a gentle syncopation, again, courtesy of Alex Rybek; a tune notable to me primarily for its novelty.
Then with an explanation evoked by the “Me Too” movement, Oberlin and Rybek sang “Baby, its Cold Outside”, an always delightful duet that is usually sung with flirtation in the heart and a twinkle in the eye. Frank Loesser, it was explained, wrote the song in 1944 to sing with his then wife, Lynn Garland, at their housewarming party in New York City’s Navarro Hotel – to indicate to guests that it was time to leave. Garland has written that after the first performance, “We became instant parlor room stars. We got invited to all the best parties for years on the basis of ‘Baby.’ It was our ticket to caviar and truffles.” When Loesser sold the song to MGM for the 1949 movie Neptune’s Daughter, Garland claimed to feel “as betrayed as if I’d caught him in bed with another woman.” Once ensconced in the movie, the song won the Academy Award despite being sung by the unlikely pair of Ricardo Montalban and Ester Williams. The score allocates the parts to “the Wolf” and “the Mouse”, although it is often sung with a female taking the Wolf part.
“White Christmas” (Berlin) followed with an invitation to the audience to join in. Only scrooge can resist a sing-a-long of carols and Oberlin kept the presentation clean and simple, sentimental and unintimidating. As best I recall, her register has come down a couple of notes over time and provided a supportive and familial quality to the rendition.
Ari Axelrod, with a creamy tenor, sang “My Favorite Things” (Rogers/Hammerstein) and segued into “What a Wonderful World” (Weiss/Thiele). While I missed the gravel of Armstrong’s classic rendition of the latter, Axelrod brought his own warmth to it. Axelrod explained how Christmas to him included the traditions of egg foo young and holiday movie going, a practice perhaps apocryphally shared by many NY Jews – but to solemnize his feeling for tradition (and certainly as a nod to the Jewish component of the NCY cabaret audience) performed the contemporary “L’dor Vador” (Singer/Finkelstein, with a provenance open to some question):
We are gifts and we are blessings, we are history in song
We are hope and we are healing, we are learning to be strong
We are words and we are stories, we are pictures of the past
We are carriers of wisdom, not the first and not the last.
The arrangement and performance were heart-felt and quite lovely to me, if not obviously joined to the holiday season.
Celia Berk Joined Axelrod to perform a rendition of “A Jewish Christmas” (Kerchner), a paean to the sectarian appeal of the holiday which included such inevitable yet remarkably not immortal lines as:
“Oy to the world!”
“I want a Yule log not just some candles,
a burning bush to heat my tush and warm my sandals”
“Then give us Christmas, we’ll shout l’chaim,
we want your elves all to our selves, is that a cri-em?”
Berk’s Silver Bells, medlied in an unorthodox arrangement with Carol of the Bells (traditional) and a bit of Shostakovich (Waltz #2, Opus 99), seemed to stray momentarily engagingly (but dangerously) close to something klezmeric. This was followed by A Simple Prayer (Silversher), again new to me, but so timely in its wish to bring nations together. Not all singers can carry this off without sounding saccharine or sanctimonious , but Berk does so.
God Bless the darkest night and bless the brightest day.
We will be wrong or right, God bless us anyway.
God bless our truest friends and, yes, our enemies;
God bless the bluest skies above the blackest seas.
God bless the evening air and bless the warming sun.
This is my simple prayer, God bless everyone.
Kevin Dozier introduced himself with an anecdote of having escaped his mother’s clutches when attending a Christmas mass at the age of three, then popping up in the front pews to shout “Happy Birthday Jesus!” He followed with songs from his new Christmas CD: Christmas Eve (Hall/Rybek), Let It Snow (Cahn/Styne) and O Holy Night (Dwight/Adam), done with care, respect and a minimum of filigree. (I reviewed an earlier performance of Dozier a few weeks back and would add here only that he did indeed seem to convey greater passion in the current performance while retaining the enviable simplicity, musicality and clarity of presentation.)
Berk and Oberlin sang an “almost medley” of the poignant “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” (Loesser) and “After the Holidays” (Meyer) with too short a passage of harmonies. Duets take more time and work in the preparation – but the payoff can be grand.)
The finale was a sincerely warm “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (Blaine/Martin), originally composed for the 1944 film Meet Me In St. Louis with all hands on deck. There was an apparent friendship among the performers all of whom sat together before the show, and spontaneously sang together after the show; and that connection elevated the performance throughout. And Dozier’s mom dropped by the table to offer her son’s CD for sale; cabaret is intimate and familial, and she made it more so. The show will reprise on Friday, December 20, 2019 at the cozy Beach Café.
Opening photo: Celia Berk, Ari Axelrod, Kevin Dozier, Karen Oberlin
Photos by Fred R. Cohen