Celia Berk’s website is gramercynightingale.com. It might just as well be seriouschutzpah.com. It’s one thing for a singer to namecheck the world’s best-loved songbird…but one with a key to the park, too? That takes some nerve. In her Metropolitan Room debut last night, the cabaret-jazz chanteuse packed the room and wowed the crowd with a richly dynamic, urbane, minutely jeweled performance. Elegantly backed by her pianist/musical director Alex Rybeck along with guitarist Sean Harkness and bassist Michael Goetz, Berk delivered a program studded with gems that she and Rybeck had rescued from obscurity. Fans of cosmopolitan songcraft ought to see this show, which repeats on November 30 at 7 PM and December 6 at 4 PM for $25: considering the turnout at yesterday’s show, reservations are a good idea.
As a singer, Berk revealed herself as a stylist with laser focus on meaning and subtext, with an irrepressible, sophisticated wit. As her domain name implies, she is New York to the core. Her expressive alto has some grain around the edges: it’s the voice of a survivor, though one who hasn’t lost her joie de vivre. She expressed this most forcefully, airing out her low register on a gale-force take of David Shire’s What About Today as the band took it up from a latin-tinged stroll to a gusty crescendo. That same bittersweetness resonated more quietly but no less potently throughout Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s This Dream, with its theme of hope against hope.
But Berk can also be very funny. The biggest hit with the crowd was a droll new translation of an early Irving Berlin vaudeville number, Yiddisha Nightingale, its centerpiece an excerpt from a Puccini aria that gave Berk a chance to go to the very top of her register for full-throttle thrills. The sly version of the Cliff Friend novelty song The Broken Record – recorded by Barbra Streisand, among others – made a good segue, with its metrically tricky choruses mimicking a needle stuck in a groove. The funniest of all the songs was Berk’s New York cabaret premiere of Tex Arnold and Lew Spence’s Such a Wonderful Town, a very sideways shout-out to a tonguetwisting Long Island burg, riddled with irresistibly amusing wordplay.
Berk channeled plenty of other emotions from across the spectrum. She bookeneded a luminous take of Stairway to the Stars (the showtune, not the Blue Oyster Cult hit) with a lushly evocative interpretation of Will Jason and Val Burton’s Penthouse Serenade, explaining how pefectly the song captures her feeling for her hometown, which turned out to be a mix of rapt appreciation, wistfulness and a tinge of angst. A recurrent theme was evoked poignantly via a lesser-known Alan and Marilyn Bergman number, I’ve Been Waiting All My Life: Berk is not new to this, as was immediately evident from her command of its nuances, and was on a mission to leave a mark as someone who’s no ingenue and has decided to embrace that role, one with the depth n0 ingenue could reach.
Many of the songs from this performance are on Berk’s new album You Can’t Rush Spring, with Rybeck and an expanded cast of musicians.
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