Laurie Beechman Theatre – December 1, 8, 11, 18, January 15, 22, 29
Boisterous pianist and singer Mark Nadler has been entertaining cabaret crowds here and abroad for quite a few years, and now he’s pulling out the stops for a romp through “Crazy 1961,” a celebration of his birth year in music, personal stories and historical anecdotes. History has never been so much fun, and so convincing is Nadler in his recounting of that year that you may leave thinking 1961 on a par with 1492, 1776 or 1945.
In fact, Nadler effectively conveys what a pivotal time it was: The Music Man and Gypsy closed at the same time Bob Dylan and the Beatles were giving their first public performances, hinting at a new era to come, while Judy Garland was enjoying her last great triumph at Carnegie Hall; the Bay of Pigs, the first troops sent to Vietnam, nuclear testing, and the first human to orbit Earth all portended both the dangers and possibilities of the growth of technology; and the Freedom Writers took an integrated bus trip and apartheid was condemned in South Africa during that year—the same that saw the birth of future president Barack Obama and the hundredth anniversary of the Civil War.
Nadler himself revealed that he was born on the same day that Patsy Cline recorded “Crazy” (October 14) and, known for occasionally being maniacal on stage, the irony wasn’t lost on him. A further tale of his mother holding off his birth so he wouldn’t be born on Friday the 13th adds additional hilarity to the tale. All of this is a master lesson in writing an act—especially the way he weaves the personal with the historical and with the musical underscoring. But what of the music itself, presumably the reason one would go to a Mark Nadler show in the first place?
Nadler offers up a representative variety of songs from 1961, adding the flair of his own creative arrangements. (As a special treat, at the performance I attended, Ervin Drake, who wrote that year’s “It Was a Very Good Year,” made famous by Frank Sinatra, was in the audience.) He opens the show with a mash-up of “Once in a Lifetime” (Anthony Newley, Leslie Bricusse) and “Comes Once in a Lifetime” (Jule Styne, Betty Comden, Adolph Green). Nadler wastes no time giving us his trademark energy—in fact, his voice was a bit hoarse, which had me wondering how he was going to get through an hour-plus show.
Fortunately, like a trained thoroughbred, Nadler knows how to pace himself and add different colors and textures to keep things exciting until he crosses the finish line. While a song like “Cruella De Vil” (Mel Leven) fits his style like a glove, “Dedicated to the One I Love” (Lowman Pauling, Ralph Bass), slowed down to a lullaby, was a welcome surprise. It not only showed his tender side, but showed off his virtuoso piano playing—on this, he accompanied himself while the quartet behind him took a break. His musicians are virtuosos themselves, but the wall of sound often buries Nadler’s own accomplishment
Nadler brilliantly delivers “Love Makes the World Go ‘Round” (Bob Merrill) with a game-show smile, while interleaving the song’s verses with frightening imagery of 1961 military actions, highlighting both the year’s danger and promise. From there, he moves into Noël Coward’s “Sail Away,” with its lyric “When the storm clouds are riding through a winter sky, sail away”—but giving the song a mad, honky-tonk feel, ending with a flourish. This juxtaposition of happy songs and disturbing events pulls the listener back in time and makes him feel that, indeed, we may have been on the brink of madness that year.
Kudos to sound technician Nik Santiago, who lends an outerworldly, eerie echo to “Adrift on a Star” (Jacques Offenbach, E.Y. Harburg), used to illustrate the burgeoning space program. Nadler also brings something entirely new to the popular standard “Crazy” (Willie Nelson), turning it into a jazzy big band number. Mark Lopeman on tenor sax gives the number extra oomph. One-upping any previous stunt-singing he (or perhaps anyone else) has done before, he closes with a medley of the Top 50 (yes, fifty!) hits of the year, so as not to disappoint anyone who thinks he missed anything. He sails through this while holding up cards that keep count of all fifty. “Moon River,” one of the most beautiful songs of that or any year, makes a fitting encore.
Besides Lopeman (reeds), the terrific band consists of Scott Johnson (guitar), Robert Sabin (bass), and Sherrie Maricle (drums).
With Nadler’s energy and unending creativity, we can look forward to his reviving “Crazy 1961” in 2061 for his hundredth birthday. But why wait? Nadler is well worth seeing, now or any year.
About the Author
Kevin Scott Hall performed in cabaret clubs for many years and recorded three CDs, including “New Light Dawning” in 1998, which received national airplay. He also worked at the legendary piano bar, Rose’s Turn, and has taught cabaret workshops and directed shows since 1995. Kevin earned his MFA in Creative Writing at City College of New York. He is an adjunct professor in the Theatre and English departments at City College and Borough of Manhattan Community College. His novel, “Off the Charts!” was published in 2010, and his memoir, “A Quarter Inch from My Heart” (Wisdom Moon), in 2014. Kevin writes a monthly column and entertainment features for Edge Media Network, writes reviews for BistroAwards.com, and freelances for other publications.