Who needs another boring box of overpriced Godivas? This Valentine’s Day, aim an arrow at your love from Cupid’s bow that won’t be forgotten. Thawing the February ice, Christine Andreas and Sylvia McNair, two luscious divas with beauty to enhance and voices to enthrall, have arrived to make the supper-club scene something very special indeed. Memorably singing songs of rumination and romance, they’re a pair of heartbreakers.
Ms. Andreas is from Broadway; Ms. McNair is from the Metropolitan Opera. Amazingly, their gifts adapt sublimely to the nightclub stage. In a tired old world of psych-out, burn-out and sell-out, they bring sanity and order to confusion and anxiety, with voices as pure as the angels.
At the Café Carlyle, where Ms. Andreas is sending everyone out in search of a thesaurus to find new adjectives, she’ll be holding court throughout the entire month. Performing the repertoire on her stunning new CD The Carlyle Set , she polishes off an elegant, colorful and eclectic musical palette that includes works by Sheldon Harnick, Michel Legrand, Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, Duke Ellington, Lerner and Loewe, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Antonio Carlos Jobim and, of course- mais naturellement -Mr. Rodgers and Mr. Hart. Her meticulous repertoire reflects the special alchemy that always exists between Ms. Andreas and her audiences. She doesn’t play it safe. On “Show Me” from My Fair Lady , which she performed nightly in the 20th-anniversary production that won her a Theatre World Award, she hits the ground running, and on “It’s Got to Be Love,” one of the brighter songs from the score of On Your Toes , she barely takes the time to inhale. (When was the last time you heard a soprano who swings?) On the rangy, hard-to-tackle Ellington masterpiece “In a Sentimental Mood,” she negotiates the harmonic detours and dissonant half-notes with a depth of soul that leaves bloodstains. The versatility and craft that have made her such a respected leading lady in Broadway musicals is very much evident in “At the Ballet,” the award-winning centerpiece from A Chorus Line . Christine turns it into a three-act play of poignant introspection that you won’t soon forget.
Though she is classically trained, it’s easy to see why Christine numbers among her early musical influences many of the great interpreters of popular music, show tunes and jazz. Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and Judy Garland are high on her list. But what singer from New Jersey, regardless of gender, hasn’t been shaped by Frank Sinatra? In a special valentine tribute to the pain and loss in his songs of unrequited love, she cleverly discards the usual tropical bossa-nova beat on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “How Insensitive” and almost speaks its lyrics as a perfect intro to the navy blue midnight mood on “I’m a Fool to Want You.” The lyrics, some of which were written by Sinatra himself after his tempestuous marriage to Ava Gardner, still apply to anyone with specific memories of an affair that ended unresolved and refused to fade away.
Shifting moods to the exhilarating “Storybook,” the dazzling waltz from The Scarlet Pimpernel , she demonstrates once again how, and why, she stopped the show nightly on Broadway for two years. And before she wafts into the night in a sea of strapless splendor, she pulls one more surprise from her book of magic-a gorgeous, haunting, self-searching Dave Frishberg song called “Listen Here.” Written for a Mary Tyler Moore television special, it is rarely performed and ready for rescue. Christine does both, finding something in the process that might well serve as a survival philosophy for us all. The song says find that inner voice that nags you with anxiety and self-doubt, and give it the old Bronx raspberry as you send it out of your life air mail, special delivery. I wish everyone would flush “My Funny Valentine,” a song I hate, down the bowl with the rest of last year’s candy violets. But what can you do? It’s the only valentine song anybody knows. And I must admit, Christine gives it a new shine. So you leave with hope renewed, winter blahs on the wane and spring on the horizon. Get to the Carlyle and get ready to be enchanted. Meanwhile, at the Algonquin’s fabled Oak Room, the ghost of Dorothy Parker must be humming along with the wit and sophistication of Sylvia McNair’s tribute to Richard Rodgers, Stephen Sondheim and the Gershwins. I am always skeptical of opera singers who make “crossovers” from the Wagnerian torture book to the American songbook. Except for the fact that they both start with the letter C, the words “crossover” and “cabaret” cannot appear in the same sentence. Disastrous outings by Kiri Te Kanawa and Leontyne Price are perfect examples of divas who should never have strayed too far from the Hall of Carnegie. The late, great Eileen Farrell was a rare exception, but she studied with Mabel Mercer. And Sylvia McNair studied with Eileen Farrell; two CD’s with Andre Previn on jazz piano are the result. Now the graceful, decorous and tastefully gowned soprano famous for her Mozart is making the kind of career transition from concert hall to Tin Pan Alley that I usually dread. When an opera star announces she’s switching focus from Bach to boogie, it usually means her chops are chomped. What a glowing surprise to find Ms. McNair not only in such splendid voice, but thrillingly adept at exploring the subtexts of songs in a dozen variable moods.
Regal and statuesque, she could use some loosening up when she first squeezes through the bread knives and wine glasses to the microphone of uncharted territory. But under the skillful direction of Barry Kleinbort, she jumps in feet first with a pluperfect opening number, “This Is All Very New to Me,” from the wonderful, underrated score of the Broadway musical Plain and Fancy . (On the subject, why doesn’t “Encores!” stage a revival of that one instead of the petrified Can Can? ) Anyway, as Ms. McNair feels the room, gets comfortable with her pianist, the estimable Ted Taylor, and reaches a shake-hands-because-you’re-gonna-love-me rapport with the audience, she melts the chill like ice salt on a tertiary road in Vermont.
From the winking asides on “I Hear a Waltz” to the sumptuous medley of songs in three-quarter time that surveys “Lover,” “Do It Again,” “It’s a Grand Night for Singing” and “Falling in Love with Love,” she provides a broad spectrum of the Richard Rodgers oeuvre . From the vampish mischief of “Stiff Upper Lip” to the plaintive intrigue of what might have been in “Isn’t it a Pity?”, she covers the Gershwins. And while I can always do without another “Send in the Clowns” by anybody and everybody, the rending but rapturous detective work with which she investigates “Loving You” (from the undervalued score of Passion ) would probably make Stephen Sondheim nod approvingly (with Sondheim, of course, these things are never certain-you guess). At any rate, Ms. McNair certainly charmed me. For a classical singer making a segue into the art of the popular song, her phrasing is exemplary. Her modulations are inspired. Her time is enviable. She knows how to rev up the power when it’s needed and then soft-pedal the tremolo for subtlety. She has a sense of humor. She is an accomplished violinist who can make a miniature fiddle sound like bluegrass. She is not an ice-water soprano. In fact, she is so down-to-earth that you would never mistake her for a snob.
So why did she leave the Met? Friends in high places who know Sylvia McNair personally have told me that she folded up her menu of arias and left the opera world for only one reason: “She wasn’t bitchy enough to stay there.” Onstage at the Algonquin, she says, “I was always happier singing ‘Embraceable You’ than Handel’s Julius Caesar .” She’s singing it now, and she’s terrific doing it. My only caveat: She doesn’t sing many verses, which are so important. This is most important of all on a masterpiece like “With a Song in My Heart.” Listen to the way Mary Cleere Haran delicately holds a magnifying glass to one of the tenderest verses Lorenz Hart ever wrote, and you’ll know what I mean. A song without a verse is like a sermon without a doxology.
Otherwise, it’s a pleasure to welcome Sylvia McNair to the real world. If you’ve only heard her on a concert stage, the experience of hearing her in a new and intimate setting is a brand-new treat. I could get used to this kind of ecstasy.
The Incomparable Omar Sharif
In the clutter of trash clogging cinema sewers since the beginning of 2004, Monsieur Ibrahim is an intimate little gem, a sweet tale about finding family and faith from French director François Dupeyron that signals a triumphant return to the screen by Omar Sharif. Temporarily eschewing championship bridge and native turbans, the seasoned, snow-haired veteran of all those Hollywood epics of yesteryear is both moving and memorable as an elderly Arab storekeeper in Paris who accidentally becomes the surrogate father to an abandoned adolescent. It is summertime in the 1960’s, and a boy named Momo (Pierre Boulanger) lives with his father on the city’s working-class Rue Bleue, the home of immigrants and exiles scrambling to elude the deportation laws. Momo’s mother and older brother left years ago, so he and his father have settled into an acrimonious routine in which the boy spends his days alone, watching the world go by and making supper. Momo’s papa constantly compares him to his absent brother and even forgets his birthday.
After launching unguided into the confusions of adolescent street life, Momo is on his way to reform school when he finds support in an unexpected corner. The neighborhood merchant, Ibrahim (Mr. Sharif, scarcely recognizable behind his white beard), is totally ignored by his clients. No one gives any thought to the ancient codger who sits behind his cash register, reading his Koran and always counting out the exact change. Yet he has watched Momo grow up and, as the boy’s teen years present ever more isolating challenges, Ibrahim takes him under his protective wing. The old man follows the Sufi faith, and as Momo shares in his new father figure’s generosity, vitality and piety, a brighter future opens before him. Based on Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s novel, the story unfolds through inspired vignettes, while a film crew re-creates a scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris in the middle of the Rue Bleue, complete with a guest cameo by Isabelle Adjani in the Brigitte Bardot role. The fanciful visuals (Ibrahim and Momo’s glistening new convertible bought with cash, the fever of the Sufi whirling dervishes, the montage of panoramic skies when they travel over Europe to the old man’s family home in Turkey) contrast with the poignant reality, which is strongly reminiscent of Simone Signoret’s relationship with the child in Madame Roza .
With astonishingly beautiful cinematography and striking performances by the cracking team of the young Boulanger and the crafty, incomparable Mr. Sharif in what may well be his most charming role, this film with an undeniably big heart leads us back in time, down bustling Parisian streets and finally across Europe as we join the old and young protagonists in a complex emotional journey made simple by the truths it touches upon.