Con Artist: Steve Tyrell’s Rat Pack Smarm Is a Natural Emetic

Music lovers be warned

Steve Tyrell grunts and shouts at the Carlyle. (Photo by Stephen Sorokoff)

Steve Tyrell grunts and shouts at the Carlyle. (Photo by Stephen Sorokoff)

Steve Tyrell is the luckiest man in cabaret. With so many great artists out of work, he has played 12 gigs at the chic, overpriced Café Carlyle in nine years, and he can’t even sing!

Well, consider the market. Who needs singing when grunting and shouting will do just as well for an undiscerning crowd, bused in from expensive rest homes, who don’t know the difference. Mr. Tyrell, a jolly, clueless performer who resembles Forrest Tucker on F Troop, is a proud member of the finger-snapping ring-a-ding-ding school of ossified Rat Packers who think the Great American Songbook ended with “Come Fly With Me.” The old tunes are the only ones he’s comfortable with, which is fine with me, if only he could sing them. Jerome Kern did not write like George Gershwin, but Mr. Tyrell’s intonation is so drab and his phrasing so emotionless that you can’t tell the difference between the chunky tempo of “The Way You Look Tonight” and the thudding, ill-advised screaming on “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” An evening of all that groaning and yelling is like a root canal before the Novocain sets in.  

Native Texan Tyrell’s current six-week engagement is called “Wordsmiths: Lyricists of the Great American Song,” which must be a printing error since what he knows about interpreting the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein, Yip Harburg, Dorothy Fields, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, and Cole Porter, among others, could pass unnoticed through the eye of a needle. Musically, I’ve heard better phrasing from goatherds calling their flocks by moonlight. I shudder to think what tough, sophisticated Cole Porter would say if he came off sounding like Carole King. Mr. Tyrell is so square that he refuses to sing the word “cocaine.” The result is the first time I’ve ever heard “I Get a Kick Out of You” with a jolt of Valium. Tethered to the Rat Pack prototype, he never bothers to break out of the old mold long enough to get under the skin of the song itself. Of course, with due respect, he knows his limitations. God forbid what might happen if Mr. Tyrell ever tackles anything by Stephen Sondheim.   

Worse still, the patter between cookie-cutter arrangements, about his grandchildren and football teams, his early employment in the days of Tin Pan Alley and his hero worship of Yogi Berra, sounds like it was written by Lum and Abner. The stories are so old they’re growing hair on their palms, and sometimes they’re not even accurate. The one about how Yogi Berra answered the question “Where do you want to be buried?” with “Surprise me!” is a Bob Hope line that Rosemary Clooney used to tell in her own nightclub act. Mr. Tyrell tells it again, and his fans roar like they’re hearing it for the first time, unaware that he’s about as hip as a petrified hamster. He phrases with his fingers. Old ladies who should be home baking oatmeal cookies actually whistle their approval like Sinatra groupies did under mob rule in Vegas. What’s the lure to being joined at the hip replacement with the Rat Pack? Mr. Tyrell emulates the old Vegas icons without shedding any light on how or why they got that way. Today, all of those vaunted reputations and massive egos seem as dated and irrelevant as linoleum. He has personal charm and admirable energy, but even with heavyweight musicians like bassist David Finck, drummer Kevin Winard, Bob Mann on guitar and trumpeter Bijon Watson, he couldn’t swing with a gun pointed at his head.

He’ll be in residence through Dec. 31, but what a depressing way to start the New Year. I hate to sound merciless, but music lovers should be warned. A night with this guy is like a week in Newark without a telephone.