Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.

Fred R. Cohen

Manhattan Serenade – Celia Berk


On April 3 the much acclaimed Celia Berk performed, again at the Metropolitan Room, to introduce her new CD (released April 1), Manhattan Serenade. Berk, winner of a 2015 Bistro Award, a 2015 MAC Award for female debut and the 2015 Margaret Whiting Award (among others), was also recognized for her debut album You Can’t Rush Spring – which was nominated for MAC’s 2015 LaMott Friedman Award for Best Recording. There are reasons to prefer a live show to a recording; and reasons to prefer a recording to a live show. What one gains in polish may be lost in spontaneity. Gains in precision may be traded for a loss in electricity and warmth.  Each has merits. This note is less a review than a contrast of the experiences.

I first heard Berk in live performance in 2015 and was immediately won over: see WAT Review. I subsequently heard the corresponding (debut) CD: You Can’t Rush Spring. I was blown away by both the material and the delivery. But a single point in the firmament, however lofty, gives no clue as to a trajectory so I awaited this second recording with a sense of anticipation. Remarkably, both CDs grow in appeal with repeated hearings as fresh nuances come to light. And both CDs reflect a scholarly curiosity (credited collectively to Alex Rybeck and Berk) for unearthing intriguing, little known gems. Manhattan Serenade is pursued with complete commitment by all involved. The liner notes (mostly by Berk and Rybeck) are personal, informative and, to me, an integral part of the CD. The musicality and deep experience of the creative team at work on Manhattan Serenade is so apparent that I am loath to second guess them – although that is in part the reviewers’ role.  Nonetheless, at the end of the day, for pure self-indulgence I prefer the first CD.  Having said that, Manhattan Serenade is arguably the more imposing work – for the variety of styles, the luminary supporting players and the novelty of the constituent works.

IMG_0332_BerkBerk is in her sophomore year of professional cabaret work but has been a student of the musical arts for years. As was apparent from her earlier performances and debut CD, this is a woman of remarkable emotive fluency – capable of putting a smile, a smirk or a wink into the last third of a syllable, and equipped with a rich alto instrument under intelligent and precise control. Her classical training is suggested by her vocal quality but rarely betrayed by operatic nuance – and that only in the service of the music or humor.  And unlike so much contemporary music, every lyric is articulated and given meaning by an experienced sensibility. But there is little melodrama here; the fireworks are largely cerebral. To quote Sondheim, “It’s a quiet thing”.

Alex Rybeck is Berk’s musical director, and the arranger of every track on the CD, and the CD is as much his product as Berk’s. To my ears, a couple of tracks are stylistic outliers (notably Goffin and King’s “Up On The Roof” and Kander and Ebb’s “All I Need”), but they add welcome texture. And they do adhere to the theme of the CD (termed by Berk a “Valentine to New York”).  Despite the theme, there is no narrative arc – so anything goes provided only that it has a colorable Manhattan connection. As such the CD is, indeed, a “connoisseur’s compilation” (David Zippel) of exotic tidbits where many might prefer, for a listening experience, a more coherent unity. But if you know Berk’s work to date, you know that is not how she cooks – and you will not leave the table hungry after enjoying this menu degustation.

The recordings include only four pieces (of 13) with which I was familiar – notwithstanding the notable pedigrees of the creators: David Heneker; Kander and Ebb; Goffin and King; Bacharach and Simon; Irving Berlin; Weill and Hughes; Weill and Coslow, Rupert Holmes, Whiting, Arnold and Kahn; Rodgers and Hart; Alter and Adamson, Scibetta and Reach; Coleman and Zippel. That, in itself, is entertaining, edifying and worth the price of admission for those who seek to deepen their musical experience.

IMG_0352_BerkThe recording opens with an apt intro for its theme: David Honeker’s “Manhattan Hometown” (from the 1983 musical Peg – which could well play behind the credits of Woody Allen’s next NYC movie), and closes with a similarly apt (and beautifully and simply arranged) “A Tree in the Park” by Rodgers and Hart. Between the two, musical styles and content run a gamut (and a bit amok). “All I Need” has a Latin rhythm with bongos; “Up On the Roof” has flute and guitar accompaniment to a soft jazz/waltz tempo; “Seconds,” written for the unmade film version of Promises, Promises has a recognizably Bacharach-ian Broadway orchestration; Berlin’s “Manhattan Madness”(featuring Vince Giordano and The Nighthawks Combo Orchestra) evokes the “big band” thirties; Weill’s “Lonely House” is rendered as a “jazz aria”; backup vocals color some arrangements. The musical choices are intriguing and usually surprising. To the aficionado, each piece may be a gem.  Nonetheless, when mounted together, they do not make a tiara – except perhaps in the East Village. And if that is your sensibility, this recording is also for you.

The Met Room performance which intro’ed the CD presented a somewhat different face. The notorious warmth of the performer, and the tiniest bit of residual nervousness in delivering patter, come through in the intimate space and add depth to the performance, as did the tangible affection in the room for Berk herself.  But the voice, in person as well as on the recording, remains rich, precisely tailored and with an unusual and appealing timbre.

IMG_0318_BerkThe show is directed by Jeff Harnar and accompanied by the ephemeral “Manhattan Serenade Symphonette” comprising Dan Gross on percussion, Dan Willis on woodwinds, Jered Egan on bass and Alex Rybeck at the piano, doing yeoman work to replicate the various tonalities on the CD. The encore, alone, Coleman and Zippel’s “The Broadway Song,” was sung to the CD music track in order to include the full instrumental richness captured there and a star-studded vocal backup (Josh Dixen, Kristoffer Lowe and director Jeff Harnar).

The live performance included a few numbers not included on the CD.  One, “The Party Upstairs” (Ronny Whyte and Francesca Blumenthal), was a particularly appropriate New York number focusing, as it does, on the intrusive entertainments of the upstairs neighbor – from which the singer is excluded.  And like “Seconds” (on the CD but not in the live show) it provides a poignant ending by illuminating an unexpected alternate meaning of the lyric. (I would have liked to have that on the recording.)  Also not on the CD but in the air were “Such a Wonderful Town” (Whiting and Arnold) reprising a comedic number from Berk’s Met Room debut and the Gershwins’ “Embraceable You.”

The CD lacks the patter that makes a live performance personal and, often, funny. From the stage, Berk offered New York-centric anecdotes including the tale of her having arrived in NYC with her theater degree and immediately getting a job in a bakery.  There she was privileged to serve Betty Comden a choice selection of rugelach accompanied by a (presumably sotto voce) rendition of “Bake someone happy, bake just one someone happy . . . and I can cook too!”   And there is no doubt that Berk can cook, and will – each Sunday in April at the Metropolitan Room.

Photos by Fred R. Cohen; his website: Fred Cohen Photography 

Click to purchase  You Can’t Rush Spring on Amazon.

Trezana Beverley’s Mabel Madness


Mabel Madness is an intimate show, in an intimate theater, about an intimate performer.  Mabel Mercer was a resilient and stalwart figure in the history of cabaret who significantly influenced the American music scene in the mid-20th century. Mabel Madness, which ran a brief 80 minutes in the preview I attended, is rich with song, but it is crafted and performed as theater.

Trezana Beverley did what performers have done for centuries to gain a platform – she wrote her own drama, in this case, one that focuses on Mercer. The story is peppered with songs, most recorded by Mercer, and two composed for the show by Barry Levitt, a much-admired New York musical director, with lyrics by Peter Napolitano, the director of Musical Theatre.

Deconstructing the facts of Mercer’s life, Beverley reweaves them into a story that is personal to her.(I note here significant disparities between various Mercer bios but, for purposes of this review, I have relied on the facts relayed by Beverley.) Beverley is a much decorated graduate of the NYU Tisch School for the Arts, has sung and acted on stage and screen (winning a Tony for her work in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf), and has directed for the stage; she is currently part of the guest directing faculty of the Julliard School in New York City.

01_ Mable Madness featuring Trezana Beverley. Photos by TANJA HAYES PHOTOSMercer was credited with being the vocalist story teller. This performance, while tracing Mercer’s life, purports to tell us how that very successful focus arose, albeit painfully, from Mercer’s life. I heard Mercer myself only late in her career when I assumed she had adopted her style to accommodate a diminished voice and encroaching age but, in the course of the evening, I learned otherwise – and a good deal more that I had never known and would never have guessed.  Is this a history that one has to know to be accounted a fully cultured person?  Perhaps not.  But it is an interesting story affectingly told.  Beverley has, through her locution and singing voice, nicely evoked Mercer’s style and stage persona, and decorates the history with enough personal details, and Mercer songs, to bring the story to life.

The history is related as reminiscence shared by Mercer while nervously preparing for a performance, arranged by her near life-long promoter Donald Smith, after a long hiatus from the stage. Mercer was the product, in 1900, of a youthful dalliance in England between a white, British, teen-aged musical hall performer and Ben Mercer, a black vaudevillian acrobat. Mercer was admonished always to call her mother Emily “Auntie Em.” A shy child, Mercer’s mother forced her, against her will, to speak the Queen’s English and to project her voice. As a small child, Mercer turned to her Grandma Whadem for emotional shelter and was ultimately abandoned by her mother to her grandmother’s care in a household of relatives.

02_ Mable Madness featuring Trezana Beverley. Photos by TANJA HAYES PHOTOSMercer was subsequently swept from that very Catholic and condemnatory context to be deposited in a local nunnery; mom moved to America and adopted the name Emily LeBlanc. Beverley relates a bit of Mercer’s traumatic history with the nuns, her graduation onto the street at 14 with only her mother’s New York address, stints in the music halls of London and Brussels, back row parts in Showboat, her move to Paris in the mid-20s, and effective adoption by “Brick” (nee Ada Beatrice Queen Victoria Louise Virginia Smith, another mixed race child who became a mainstay of café society) and her life-long agent Donald Smith.

Mercer became the toast of Parisian cabaret – she was befriended by Cole Porter and Duke Ellington, was sought out by the nobility of England and drew the cultural luminaries of the age: Picasso, Chaplin, Channel, Olivier, Gabel and Grable, Marlena Dietrich and her lover, Jo Carstairs. Dietrich paid Mercer’s reluctant way to America in anticipation of the Nazi occupation of Paris.  Mercer reached out once again to Auntie Em, and arranged to meet her mother.  When Mercer asked whether she might call her and acknowledge her as “mother,” Auntie Em promised to “think about it.” Subsequently struck with tonsillitis, Mercer’s surgery was footed by Carstairs who then spirited her to a private Island in Nassau for recovery. There she met and fell into love with Kelsey Farr, a gay, black singer, who promised her all the emotional room she might ever need; they were wed and returned to New York.

Later Mercer was courted by Harry Beard, soon revealed to be married but unable to wangle a divorce, who promised he would never leave her; he did not. Ultimately Mercer was sought out as a role model and teacher by the likes of Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Mel Torme, Barbara Cooke, Billie Holiday and, most notoriously, Frank Sinatra, who credited Mercer with teaching him how to phrase a lyric. That skill she apparently got from Auntie Em who repeatedly coached her to tell a story, to act a part.

04_ Mable Madness featuring Trezana Beverley. Photos by TANJA HAYES PHOTOSWhether as a matter of necessity or simple internal strength, Mercer lived by her own rules – never having had the guidance or shelter of a traditional family.  She was timid, tough, tenacious and independent. She was sought out and feted as a performer and, only after her mother’s death, came to appreciate some of the scant good Auntie Em had done for her.

There is a sweet dénouement to the arc of the show which, for dramatic effect, I will refrain from sharing. Suffice it to say that Mercer was a triumphant survivor who started with little and made the most of it; she made loyal friends and gained life-time admirers; she imprinted her style on the golden era of American song like few others. She is a part of the history of American musical performance.  The history would benefit by being more frequently anchored to external events, but Beverley’s telling is an appealing way to take in this history and learn more about Mercer’s remarkable life.

Frances Hill and Peter Napolitano are co-directors; Tuffus Zimbabwe provided suitably unobtrusive musical direction; Gail Cooper-Hecht, costumer design; Tabitha Pease, scenic design and Christina Watanabe, lighting.  Nicholas Blade Guldner provided video design – which effectively superimposed people and places on the rear scrim to illustrate Mercer’s recollections.

Tanja Hayes Photos

Mabel Madness will be performed at Urban Stages at 259 West 30th Street through March 20, 2016.

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