There’s a ripe adjective to describe every flavored, favored aspect of Christine Ebersole’s versatility, and before she throws in the towel and does something besides entertain, like run for president, the critics will probably get around to using them all. For now, I can think of only one—sensational!
In her elegant, witty and intelligent new show at Café Carlyle, she serves up a thoughtful, incisive master class in how to enhance cabaret and keep it alive with fresh new insights that should be required viewing by aspiring performers everywhere. She calls it “The End of the World as We Know It.” I call it “Christine Ebersole Sings the Apocalypse.” She does it with such panache that the swinging Matt Dennis evergreen “Show Me the Way to Get Out of This World” has never been more relevant. When she shakes her saffron yellow curls and smiles her survival grin in Technicolor, she makes the end of the old world, the beginning of a new one, and everything in between seem as rare and giddy as a Disney cow.
The premise, of course, is only an umbrella that gives her a lot of poetic license to peruse and reflect on the stuff that is sucking the joy and health and optimism out of our lives today, from the annoyance of cell phones to the rottenness of the economy. Warning against texting, checking emails and disrupting the other patrons, she begins her show with “—and remember, if you see something, say something!” What follows is more a celebration of the soul, a jubilation of life, basted with enough meaningful patter to keep us laughing while we “let the healing waters of cabaret comfort and guide us.” Tsk-tsking the negative forces that drag us down, she croons Irving Berlin’s blues-tinged “Get Thee Behind Me Satan” with an undulating tempo, fueled by the wailing sax of David Mann and packaged in a sexy arrangement by Rosemary Clooney’s long-time ace pianist, John Oddo. The jazz quintet behind her includes two more Davids—bassist David Finck and drummer David Ratajczak—and Tony Kadleck on trumpet. Five better men good and true do not exist.
You can always rely on the hip and supertalented Ms. Ebersole for exquisite taste in musicians and material, as well as an unusual program of underexposed jewels. And so Noël Coward’s “What’s Going to Happen to the Children (When There Are No Grownups)” rhymes “tiny fists” with “psychiatrists” and she makes the meaning inherent in both. The Depression comes to life with Yip Harburg’s lyrics to “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” conjuring images of bread lines, soup kitchens and penny apples. Then, Sophie Tucker’s licentious lament “Max From the Income Tax” reminds us that good times or bum times, there is always somebody in the wings forcing you to pay up whether you’ve got it or not. Sometimes she waxes ecstatic about the things that see us through the dark and lead us into the light, like her three adopted children, who provide the penultimate intro to a gorgeous, stunning rendition of Harold Arlen’s “Right as the Rain.” The songs don’t always seamlessly illustrate the challenges of the world she describes. But who cares? I would join any queue just to hear her sing her special arrangement of “I Loves You Porgy.” This show encompasses the kind of scope that offers a carefully selected Whitman’s sampler of her many inherent influences, from jazz, gospel and blues to Ethel Merman’s belting on Broadway show tunes like Cole Porter’s “Blow, Gabriel Blow.” Who else would close any show with an exquisite arrangement of an old chestnut like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat, Gently Down the Stream?” and make it sound brand new?
So save those pennies and take Christine Ebersole’s advice: Whenever it’s over and our coffers are empty, remember copper is a valuable metal. Impeccable phrasing that moves from glass-breaking high notes to perfect restraint to heartbreaking ruefulness helps enormously. She has a lot to give and at the Carlyle, she’s giving it all she’s got. When she floats away on her ark, I pray that she saves a lifeboat for me.