Sandy Stewart and Bill Charlap

January 8, 2010

“Somebody Loves Me” 

Oak Room at the Algonquin  –  January 5 – 16

 For some time, Sandy Stewart and Bill Charlap have opened early in the year at the Algonquin’s Oak Room and have thereby set the musicianship bar high for everyone coming after them here—or anywhere else. This January is no different. As 2010 unfolds, others may come along who do as well in their unique ways, but few will present a show as start-to-finish exquisite as this mother-son combo effortlessly manages to do.

There are instances in the cabaret whirligig where formula works and many where formula eventually stagnates. Stewart and Charlap are an example of formula registering consistently at top efficiency. Stewart hardly speaks—”ladies and gentlemen, Bill Charlap” and “I’m so glad to be home!” represent the entirety of her patter—but instead sings a series of songs (a dozen or a baker’s dozen). She sings the ditty once, lets offspring Charlap invent whatever he can during a break, then repeats it from the top or the bridge—only occasionally introducing different lyrics.

About halfway through the evening, Stewart takes a break. (That’s when the “ladies and gentlemen, Bill Charlap” comes in.) Having accompanied Mom with delicacy and delight, he then shows off his hot-cool licks on a few melodies. Stewart returns and takes it home with another five or so songs. Throughout. Stewart floats silk ribbons of sound, and Charlap erects rollercoasters of notes. This frame they adapt—again, as usual—to standards, some of which are more familiar than others. From where I listen, no one has ever sung Vernon Duke’s “Autumn in New York” better or brought more heartache to Irving Berlin’s “Say It Isn’t So” or infused such quiet joy in the Gershwin brothers’ “Isn’t It a Pity?”

It may be that my immense enjoyment in the team this year stems from their including less-frequently-intoned selections of which I’m unusually fond. Stewart also does the Leo Robin-Jerome Kern “In Love in Vain” and the Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II “All in Fun.” (Yes, Barbara Carroll frequently does the latter at her Sunday brunches in this very room, but few others relish its wounded irony.)

During his set-within-a-set on opening night, Charlap pounced slyly on the Irving Caesar-Vincent Youmans “Tea for Two,” Vernon Duke and E.Y. Harburg’s “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” and Stephen Sondheim’s “You Must Meet My Wife.” The son of composer Moose Charlap, the jazz pianist has always gravitated to show tunes, and on this last one demonstrated what a gorgeous, unfairly underrated melodist Sondheim is. (Yes, Carroll is another dedicated Sondheim-as-melodist advocate.)

Because Stewart lets lyrics speak for themselves and often slows tempos to allow this to happen, the emotional depth and the psychological sophistication of the songs she and Charlap treat shine through. Indeed, it’s impossible to listen to a set of theirs and not give a melancholy thought to the wide-spread dumbing-down that’s occurred in popular music over the last few decades. Think only of “Isn’t It a Pity?” with its references to Heine and Schopenhauer (which it was assumed audiences would understand). The first time through “I’m Old Fashioned,” Stewart sings “And Georgie Clooney’s looks give me a thrill” and changes it the second time through to “And David Merrick’s looks don’t give me a thrill.” She expects the crowd to get the joke—and the devil take the hindmost.

“For mature audiences only,” folks, in the best sense of the term.



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