Wednesday, April 6, 2016

A Hot Szot on 54th Street

I was happy when the team at Feinstein's/54 Below contacted me and asked me to come to Paulo Szot's cabaret show, which opened Tuesday evening. (Billy Stritch was Music Director and led an excellent backup trio.) To quote the publicity team at 54 Below:
Paulo Szot
Uncredited photo from
Audiences can prepare to swoon as the Tony-winning star of South Pacific headlines Feinstein’s/54 Below with a brand new show for a limited 5-night engagement. In his show, the Brazilian opera star takes us on a journey [through] the most romantic songs of the American Songbook, including iconic hits from the Golden Age of Broadway and more. Expect Lerner and Loewe, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Burton Lane, the Gershwins, Leonard Bernstein and more.
And swoon we did! Mr. Szot's American Songbook selections all showed his impressive vocal tone and musical instincts, as well as his charisma on stage. My two favorite songs were the two he seemed to throw himself into the most--"This nearly was mine" from South Pacific, with which he won that Tony; and the duet "Bess, you is my woman now" from Porgy and Bess, with surprise guest artist Christine Ebersole. I hadn't heard Ms. Ebersole sing before, and was quite pleased with what I heard. The two had a wonderful chemistry together.

Although I say these songs stood out, I was pleased with the entire program. "Being Alive" from Company was very effective. (One wondered why Mr. Szot has never been cast as Bobby in Company--having more history with this remarkable song would have made it even better.) The medley of Brazilian songs was charming and fun, and featured Mr. Stritch, who also took a prominent part in "How about you?", a Burton Lane song from the 1941 film Babes on Broadway. I quite liked "Lover, come back to me" from Sigmund Romberg's 1927 operetta The New Moon. Mr. Szot also offered "Stars" from Les Miserables, using lyrics in the local languages from the many places around the world it's performed--a few phrases in Spanish, some in French, just one in German, finally concluding in English.

There was something to like in nearly every song Mr. Szot sang, but I don't want to take up space praising them all. I do want to praise the trio of Music Director Billy Stritch on piano, Tom Hubbard on bass, and David Meade on drums. As a trio and individually, the three shone brightly. The venue of 54 Below itself deserves praise, too, especially for the food of Chef Lynn Bound and the excellent service. (All shows have a cover charge and a food/drink minimum.)

Qualms? Very few. I don't really like the practice of holding a long note at the end of a song with a straight tone and slowly adding vibrato just before the end, especially when practiced by opera cross-over artists. This happened with several songs, and sometimes the straight tone lacked support and intonation. I found some of the patter between songs cheesy--it came across as overly sentimental or downright insincere. In fact, when Mr. Szot interrupted one song with additional patter it was intrusive and unpleasant.

As I say, qualms are minor, and I'd highly recommend this show. It plays through April 9. Go!

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