In her first New York solo engagement, Celia Berk opened her Metropolitan Room show, “You Can’t Rush Spring” (directed by Jeff Harnar), with “I’ve Been Waiting All My Life” (Billy Goldenberg, Alan & Marilyn Bergman). This song’s title was clearly chosen to help describe Berk’s professed long-held ambition to become a cabaret singer. She came off as an earnest, classy performer. She spoke to the audience with a composed, unhurried quality. And her deep, warm, and soothing singing voice was a most valuable asset.
As her show continued, however, that lulling quality of Berk’s vocals also seemed at moments to be a sort of liability. Her subsequent musical selections had a languid, silky-smooth quality not all that different from her opener. True, her cute second song, Lew Spence’s “What’s Your Name,” was somewhat livelier. And her third offering, “This Dream” (Leslie Bricusse, Anthony Newley), allowed for more overt emotionality. Still, the changes of pace early in the show were small ones. Had the trend not been curtailed, the set might have drifted into a snoozy sameness.
Fortunately, it didn’t. Berk’s fourth number was an amusing, finger-snapping confection called “Such a Wonderful Town” (Spence again, with Hubert “Tex” Arnold)—about a doomed marriage that begins and dies in the exotic locale of Mamaroneck, NY. Just the name of that town evoked laughs from the audience, as did its juxtaposition with other place names, including “Chapultepec” and “Galapagos.” A little later in the program, Berk brought a smoldering quality to “Sand,” a lovely lesser-known Sondheim title from the score of an unproduced early-1990s musical film. I’m surprised this song hasn’t been heard more often in cabaret dens.
Then Berk raised the stakes considerably with her take on “Yiddisha Nightingale,” an early Irving Berlin number. She acted the character of a plainspoken fellow who longs for the love of an operatic diva. Interpolated into the selection was an aria that the handkerchief-wielding Nightingale herself sings: a Yiddish version of Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro” called “Oy Veh, Mayn Liber Tate” (translation from the Italian by Binyumin Schaecter). Taking on these two characterizations freed Berk in a wonderful way. She planted herself on the stage with more authority than she’d previously shown. It seemed almost as though she were a different performer from the one the audience had previously seen. And the crowd cheered the results. This was a performance that would likely have delighted fans of Fanny Brice more than a century ago. (Incidentally, Berk somewhat resembled photos of the mature, elegant Brice from her Baby Snooks years.)
A bit later Berk gave a fine reading of “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” (Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II), on which she received especially good support from musical director, arranger and pianist Alex Rybeck, guitarist Sean Harkness; and bassist Michael Goetz. This sentimental classic had an appealingly gentle, rolling arrangement that included a pleasing solo for Harkness (whose talents otherwise seemed to be somewhat underused throughout the evening).
“What About Today” (David Shire) was graced with another effective arrangement. Its thumping vamp suggested the tension that builds on a cinematic soundtrack before an avalanche gets underway or a shark takes its first bite. Here Berk truly cut loose vocally, to fine effect. She may not be a belter of Merman-esque or LuPone-ian proportions, but it was good to hear her turn up her volume and her excitement level.
With this show, Berk showed much of what she is capable of. I hope that in future endeavors she will expand the variety of music she sings. She should now realize that she can pump up the elements of humor and surprise in her sets without sacrificing her admirable serenity.
“You Can’t Rush Spring”
Metropolitan Room – November 23, 30, December 6
About the Author
Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for BistroAwards.com in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is currently literary manager for Broad Horizons Theatre Company.