In his Café Carlyle debut show, Hal Linden celebrates nostalgia and commemorates his six-decades-and-counting career in show business. At age 83, he still has a sturdy baritone, and the evening has many first-rate moments.
Linden’s big Broadway break came in 1957, when he understudied and then replaced Sydney Chaplin in Bells are Ringing, and he recalls that with a lovely reading of a pairing of “Long Before I Knew You” and “Just in Time” (Jule Styne, Comden & Green). He auditioned for the lead in The Music Man, which is represented here by his exuberant performance of “Trouble” (Meredith Willson). Before deciding to become an actor, Linden played in the saxophone section of a number of bands at the tail end of the big-band era. He shows that he hasn’t lost those chops by picking up a clarinet and playing with the band for a Dixieland treatment of “Bye Bye Blues” and a Benny Goodman medley.
Near the conclusion of the evening, contrasting the comfortable life his success has made possible with the period when he was just starting out, he delivers an affecting rendition of “The Hungry Years” (Neil Sedaka, Howard Greenfield, with special lyrics by Ken and Mitzi Welch). But the highlight of the evening is a segment about The Rothschilds, the musical that garnered him a 1971 Tony Award for his portrayal of Mayer Rothschild, the patriarch of the great banking family. Linden relates very interesting information about the Rothschild family while with the aid of makeup he gets into character, then he expresses Mayer’s fervent hopes and dreams in “In My Own Lifetime” (Harnick & Bock). This segment is pretty wonderful.
But, alas, throughout the evening. Linden keeps shooting himself in the foot, mainly with hokey attempts to be funny or folksy. For example, early in the proceedings, he practically forces the audience to indulge in a bit of shout-out audience participation. This regrettable choice sets up too familiar a relationship between the star and the spectators—so that during “Trouble,” the audience feels free to react with very vocal mock dismay at each mention of one of the evil effects a pool table will have on life in River City. Very tacky.
He follows the superb “In My Own Lifetime” with “He Tossed a Coin,” sung early in The Rothschilds by Mayer Rothschild when he was a very young man trying to succeed as a rare coin dealer. Linden’s interpretation is fine, but he mars it with cutesy interplay with musical director-pianist Arthur Azenzer, which includes painful anachronistic references to Visa and Master Card. Later in the evening, a pairing of Jerry Herman’s “The Best of Times” and “Here’s to You” (Peggy Lee, Richard Hazard) is also spoiled by fanciful-but-lame interplay with Azenzer.
Though the instrumental clarinet/band segment is filled with marvelous music, it gets off to a choppy beginning as Linden repeatedly prevents the musicians from proceeding; these false start-stops are meant to be comical, but instead they are maddeningly frustrating, and by the time everyone gets down to playing “Bye Bye Blues,” it’s a matter of too brief, too late. Similarly, after telling us that he’s sung “Mack the Knife” (Kurt Weill, Bertolt Brecht, Marc Blitzstein) more often than any other song, he undermines his vocal rendition with spoken interjections meant to recreate the atmosphere of his early days jamming with his fellow big-band members.
He closes the show with Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here,” using the songwriter’s original music and structure, but with a new set of lyrics, which Linden wrote to fit his own life story and point of view. The new lyrics aren’t badly crafted, but they lack Sondheim’s grace and wit, in their place giving us a dry, frequently plodding (“still, we’ve contrived to survive, and we’re here”) and very, very long discourse.
It’s a pity about all of this. Linden is a fine singer-actor-musician, and it’s clear that a knockout show can be built around his considerable talent and career. A good director could have done just that; however no director is credited.
Once the flaccid, lackluster overture was over, the band acquitted itself admirably; in addition to the aforementioned Arthur Azenzer on piano`, its membership consists of Brian Nelepka on bass, Julie Jacobs on drums, Carolina Calvache on keyboard, Lisa Parrott on saxophone, Jamie Dauber on trumpet, and Deborah Weisz on trombone.
“Hal Linden Live in Concert”
Café Carlyle – May 20-24
About the Author
Roy Sander has been covering cabaret and theatre for over thirty years. He’s written cabaret and theatre reviews, features, and commentary for seven print publications, most notably Back Stage, and for CitySearch on the Internet. He covered cabaret monthly on “New York Theatre Review” on PBS TV, and cabaret and theatre weekly on WLIM-FM radio. He was twice a guest instructor at the London School of Musical Theatre. A critic for BistroAwards.com, he is also the site’s Reviews Editor; in addition, he is Chairman of the Advisory Board of MAC.