Club Review: Tony Yazbeck

September 13, 2023

To translate the energy, the heart, the style, the artistry and the power of a Broadway star performance into the intimate surroundings of a cabaret (even as large and stylishly theatrical a cabaret as 54 Below) is not an easy thing to do.  Some singers just recreate the energy and size of their theatrical triumphs into the smaller space to sometimes disastrous results.  Some become so lost without the fourth wall, the costumes, the orchestra, the script, and co-stars, that they never manage to inhabit the cabaret stage in any meaningful way. Some others totally reject the trappings of their previous legit endeavors and immerse themselves entirely in another genre like rock, or jazz, or folk. This choice can often be quite successful, but it can deprive some of their Broadway fans of experiencing the kind of performance that made them fans in the first place.  

Tony Yazbeck (Photo: Courtesy of 54 Below)

And for some, like singer/dancer Tony Yazbeck, the transition can seem effortless and manage to retain the legitimate thrills of those past performances by incorporating them into captivating personal expression. Nattily dressed in a vest, white shirt, tie, striped pants and spats looking like a young Donald O’Connor on a good day on the lot at MGM, Yazbeck cut a fine figure and even when he was standing still one could feel the dancer coiled up inside him. 

He started the show with an infectious smile with “On the Sunny Side of the Street” (Jimmy McHugh, Dorothy Fields) and that smile soon spread to his audience as well.  From On the Town, the show that earned him a Tony nomination, he chose “New York, New York” (Leonard Bernstein, Adolph Green, Betty Comden) revealing that he always includes a Bernstein song in each show that he does. He transformed it into a personal statement about his own feelings for his adopted home, and not those of his character in the acclaimed musical. 

Morgan James

Fondly recalling Susan Stroman and his time in a revival of Oklahoma 21 years earlier, he infused “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” (Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II) with so much of his own unspoken story that he transformed it into an embrace of life, filled with wonder and magic. Reminiscing about his double duty in Gypsy, first as a child with Tyne Daly and later, as an adult, with Patti LuPone, he could have powered a skyscraper with the energy of his dancing in “All I Need Is the Girl” (Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim). He then brought on the first of his two guest stars, the stunning Morgan James, whose rich, soulful, sexy voice inflamed “Hallelujah, I Love Her So” (Ray Charles) in a duet (for lack of a better term) with Yazbeck’s inspired dancing. She then took center stage solo for an impassioned “The Music Than Makes Me Dance” (Jule Styne, Bob Merrill) marred slightly by a tendency to close her eyes too often and for too long. She made the point if it needed to be made, that she belongs back on Broadway. 

Starting with a brilliantly realized tap and talk intro, Yazbeck personalized Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” in ways I would not have thought possible, redeeming it from the throw-away status it usually has. Taking a moment to reflect on some recent personal and musical losses (including Tony Bennett), he sat down and delivered a measured, touching, personal take on “It Had to Be You” (Isham Jones, Gus Kahn) and “The Way You Look Tonight” (Jerome Kern, Dorothy Fields) that cemented the acting side of his talent for anyone who hadn’t already been won over.  

Andrew Joseph Nemr

Presenting the hypothesis that “dancing it out” is sometimes better than “figuring it out,” he dove into “I Can’t Be Bothered Now” (George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin) in high style. It was a classic song and dance number for 2023, lifting the audience higher with each joyous, exuberant step. Bringing on his second guest, friend and dance mentor, Andrew Joseph Nemr, the two had an extended conversation unlike any I had ever witnessed as the person listening improvised tap steps until it was his turn to talk and then the other tapped. Yazbeck had wisely given some “hints” to this spectacular conceit throughout the evening with his movements, so it seemed a natural extension of the dialogue being spoken. It had no music, but it was impossibly musical. Then in what would have been a lapse in judgement by a less talented star, Yazbeck left the stage to Nemr for a haunting, understated tour de force interpretation of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints.”  The camaraderie between the two was palpable, as was Yazbeck’s appreciation of his friend’s success.

There was a third special guest at the show, the star’s six-year-old son, Leonard (named, of course, for Bernstein), who was in the audience and inspired a gorgeous “Pure Imagination” (Anthony Newley, Leslie Bricusse).  After that, informing the audience that Leonard had heard this song every night before bed, Yazbeck sat on a stool and embellishing the gentle piano with hand slaps on his thighs and foot taps on the stage, he mesmerized the house with “Moon River” (Henry Mancini, Johnny Mercer); it was truly a thing of beauty and It was unforgettable. 

So much had gone right with the show, so much had flown to the heavens, that it was a bit of a disappointment that he chose “What I Did for Love” (Marvin Hamlisch, Ed Kleban) to close the show.  The “inspirational” lyrics of this song have always had a bit of the Emperor’s New Clothes about them for me.  What is it really saying? But it was a minor quibble about what was otherwise an honest-to-goodness star turn in the best sense of the phrase. The perhaps inevitable encore of Gershwin’s’ “I Got Rhythm” was no less sensational for its inevitability.  It left the audience on an incredible high that was extended by a return of Yazbeck, James and Nemr for “My Baby Just Cares for Me” (Walter Donaldson, Gus Kahn) with James being wooed by the terpsichorean charms of her two gentlemen friends. 

Throughout the night, Jerome Korman’s piano offered exquisite support, equally at ease with Bernstein, Rodgers, Shorter, and Joel, and proving himself a master of understated elegance.  But the night belonged to Tony Yazbeck who emerged a cabaret star with a shine as bright as any on Broadway.  


Presented at 54 Below, 254 W. 54th St., September 7 & 8, 2023.


About the Author

Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”