No, this isn’t another posting about film noir. I just got back from the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel, where I heard a set by Sandy Stewart and Bill Charlap that I expect to stay with me for a long, long time.
Stewart is an old pro who slipped between the cracks during the transition from Sinatra-style pop to Beatles-style rock (she got her big break a century or two ago on Perry Como’s TV show). As for her pianist, she said all that needed to be said when she introduced him as “the best of the best…my son.” They played the Oak Room together last fall to delightful and memorable effect, and for their return engagement they’re offering a program of such ultra-standard standards as “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe,” “Just in Time,” and “Nobody Else but Me.” No cutesy-pie surprises, in other words, nor is there anything eccentric or offbeat about Stewart’s uncomplicatedly beautiful singing. Her warm, secure contralto is a shining example of what a singer who lives on her interest instead of squandering her capital can hope to sound like on the far side of middle age. I know plenty of junior-miss vocalists who’d kill to be able to draw out a long, fine-spun pianissimo phrase the way Stewart can. As for her understated but eloquent way with a lyric, it occasionally reminded me of Mabel Mercer–with chops. “Thanks for the singing lesson,” I told her after the show, and she smiled knowingly.
My escort was a singer who is lucky enough to know what it feels like to be accompanied by Bill Charlap, an experience she summed up in five heartfelt words: “He’s the best there is.” The only catch is that if you don’t give of your best all night long, he’ll reach over and eat your lunch right off your plate. His playing on “Dancing on the Ceiling,” for all its self-effacing discretion, was so precise and concentrated that a lesser singer would have vanished in the glow of its iridescent harmonies. It’s a tribute to Sandy Stewart that she glided serenely atop them as though she were sliding down a rainbow.
Stewart and Charlap are at the Oak Room through Saturday. If you’ve never heard cabaret there, you can’t imagine what you’re missing. As I wrote a few years ago in a profile of Wesla Whitfield:
What makes the Oak Room so special? Obviously, the singers who perform there are the heart of the matter, though the room itself contributes significantly to the effect they make. Cabaret is an intimate art, and the 80-seat Oak Room, with its amber sconces and red velvet banquettes, is as up close and personal as a love seat at midnight: there is no finer place to listen to songs of passion and despair. “It’s nice singing in a room this small,” Whitfield says, “because I get feedback from the people. I know what works–and what doesn’t work. When they’re bored, you can hear them scrunching up their toes in their shoes. You can get that kind of response in a larger room, but it’s very slow, and very limited.”
Go, if there’s still room. For more information, click here.