Print this Page

NY Theater Reviews

John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey/ Ph: David Andrako

PURE HARMONY

By JEREMY GERARD

Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince top the duo’s annual fall fling, while Lainie Kazan remembers flings, flames and fiascos.

John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey are marking their thirteenth year of appearances at the Café Carlyle, and I don’t think I’ve missed any of their openings (and as many more at their alt-hangout, Birdland).
 
Why? Simple: Because they are the gold standard of cabaret acts, an always flawless harmonizing of musical adventurism and impeccable taste, seasoned with the humor that comes from long experience working together (they’ve been married for over two decades). This creates a merging of distinct yet complementary styles – his astonishing technique as a jazz guitarist, her irresistible exuberance as a Broadway and pop soubrette.
 
Their voices, like their careers, twist and wind around each other, sometimes taking them in different directions. But when they are in sync, some kind of magic happens. They are the very definition of soigné, though I suspect they would greet that epithet with a snort.
 
Their new show, running through November 16, comprises songs wholly or partly by Stephen Sondheim and is dedicated to him, along with Hal Prince, who produced and later directed so many of Sondheim’s shows, beginning in the 1950s with West Side Story and Gypsy, and across the decade from Company (1970) through Merrily We Roll Along (1981).(Prince died in July.)
 
Many of their choices explore Sondheim’s push me/pull you take on marriage. They open with the sardonic “The Little Things You Do Together” from Company and include “Buddy’s Blues,” from Follies and return to Company with Jessica singing “Not Getting Married Today,” a breathless patter song that’s paired with John’s “Cloudburst” (the evening’s sole non-Sondheim entry, by Jon Hendricks). It’s a marvelous exercise in vocal counterpoint that features a quiet razzle-dazzle-off between his head-tony tenor and her lambent soprano.
 
Sensitively accompanied by Konrad Paszkudzki on piano and Mike Karn on bass, they each have plenty of opportunity to strut their stuff. John glides through the intro to Gypsy’s “All I Need Is the Girl” before taking off on his trademark feat of scatting as fast as his fingers can fly around the neck of his seven-string guitar. He serves up “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd” precisely as Jessica ordered it: in the style of Wes Montgomery, with his mellifluous lines and elegant percussive thumps. And when he plays a similar, gorgeous solo on A Little Night Music’s “Send in the Clowns,” I couldn’t help but detect a heartfelt nod to the version laid down by his father, Bucky Pizzarelli.
 
As for Jessica, in addition to that rousing “Not Getting Married Today,” I won’t soon forget the intricate delicacy of “Children and Art,” from Sunday in the Park With George. There’s poignance and joy in everything these two conjure together.
 
A different and unexpectedly rewarding demonstration expertise was in evidence at Feinstein’s/54 Below, where Lainie Kazan made a rare appearance.
 
As a very young critic, I’d reviewed her opening of Lainie’s Room at the Playboy Club in the late 70s. After appearing earlier in the pages of that magazine (she wasn’t bylining a short story), she’d been hired to book the talent at the bunny boites here and in Los Angeles. That night she faced down a room of drunks with Vegas confidence, even when a heckler began needling her. Another drunk took offense on her behalf, leapt across several tables and began pounding the miscreant with his one fist, all the while bellowing, “Not bad for a one-armed man!” I don’t remember what Kazan sang that night.
 
The other evening at Feinstein’s was a more subdued affair. The room was packed with partisans of many horses on the carousel of her life, from her start as fellow Brooklynite Barbra Streisand’s understudy in Funny Girl, to icon of the Swinging 60s to vibrant, zaftig earth mama of such films as My Favorite Year and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
 
She was elegant in all black and limited bling, and her singing was confined to a few songs (Joni Mitchell’s “Clouds,” Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” Dave Frishberg’s “Peel Me a Grape”), each delivered with earned Weltschmerz that was quite appealing. She told some very funny out-of-school tales from her storied past, celebrating the benefits of friends in the Mob, the bedroom shortcomings of Bob Dylan and life on a communist farm in the former Yugoslavia.  There were no hecklers in the house, this time around. It was all love, and it was utterly entertaining.