Manhattan’s insular world of prestigious nightclubs and cabarets, where major Broadway performers and jazz vocalists perform regular engagements paying tribute to the Great American Songbook, was rocked on Feb. 2 by the chilling revelation that the Oak Room will not reopen following the renovation of the Algonquin Hotel. That leaves just Feinstein’s at the Regency and Café Carlyle as the sole remaining major venues.
But even if the future of high-end cabaret looks increasingly limited, all is not gloom and doom for those who enjoy this niche entertainment. At the Café Carlyle, Broadway leading lady and critics’ darling Christine Ebersole opened a new cabaret show that, while based on an apocalyptic concept and religious revival mood (it is, after all, titled The End of the World As We Know It Cabaret), proves to be an absolute delight and extremely well-executed by Ebersole, her director Scott Wittman and music director-pianist John Oddo.
Ebersole begins the 60-minute performance with an offstage prayer, spoken by microphone from the hotel’s hallway: “I ask you Lord that the healing waters of cabaret fortify us tonight. Provide us with our own spiritual armor and prepare us Lord that we may have the courage of our convictions to live freely as is our birthright, fearing no man or government collection agency, from this moment until we have reached our final day of judgment. And we beseech thee Lord that on that terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day our collective asses will be saved. Amen.”
Seriously, when was the last time that Michael Feinstein or Barbara Cook opened with something like that? Of course, not all is downbeat, sarcastic and full of anxiety and uncertainty. Ebersole speaks at length about her extended family, treating them as her saving grace.
After briefly quoting “Go Down, Moses” at the start, Ebersole moves to an upbeat “Strike Up the Band” and “Johnny One Note.” From then on, she proceeds to mix high-energy numbers like “Blow Gabriel Blow” with sadder songs identified with the Great Depression like “Pennies from Heaven” and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” In a very unexpected (perhaps inappropriate) choice, she even performs “I Loves You, Porgy” from Porgy and Bess. While I don’t necessarily see Ebersole as a contender for the role of Bess, she surely nails the song’s longing and tender spirit.
Ebersole also pays tribute to a number of iconic vocalists including Noel Coward ("What’s Going to Happen to the Tots”), Sophie Tucker (“Max from the Income Tax”) with the utmost authenticity without resorting to downright mimicry.