I was right!

Last month, as we put together the annual Holiday Gift Guide, I included a suggestion that a fabulous gift would be one or more of the new live recordings of the cabaret shows at the new New York nightclub, 54 Below. 

When I included them in the suggestions I was assuming they would live up to their potential, although I had not yet heard a single one. I based my recommendation on the mere announcement of the series.

The first releases are now available and a single listen is enough to convince any theater lover that I was right. The first two are spectacular and the next two have been scheduled for release, promising even more great experiences.

54 Below is a throwback to the great nightclubs of Manhattan’s storied past. But it is as up to date technologically as possible with some of Broadway’s top designers involved in the plans. John Lee Beatty, nominated for a Tony Award for set design no fewer than fourteen times, designed the space. Ken Billington, no slouch in the Tony nomination department with nine, designed the lighting.

Most important for those who might purchase recordings of the cabaret performances, however, is the contribution of Peter Hylenski, who handled the sound design. This is the man who designed the sound for The Scottsboro Boys, Rock of Ages, Shrek, Glory Days and the 2001 revival of Follies. (We will forgive him for Wonderland – a musical that fell short on all fronts – because he did such a spectacular job on Ragtime, the last great musical of the twentieth century.)

The photos of the space – as well as the comments in the press – indicate that it is a gorgeous room in the basement of the building holding the Studio 54 Theatre on (of course) 54th Street in New York. It offers pre-theater dinner shows for people who are attending a Broadway musical in the evening, a during-theater show for those who are not in a Broadway theater seat at curtain time (shame on them!), and after-theater cabaret shows.

It opened last year with an act by one of the remaining Broadway superstars, Patti LuPone (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, the 2008 revival of Gypsy, the 2005 revival of Sweeney Todd, the 1987 revival of Anything Goes and the original Evita, to mention a few).  It quickly established a solid reputation for Broadway-themed cabaret programming. The club is owned by Broadway producers Tom Viertel, Marc Routh, Richard Frankel, and Steven Baruch who have now entered into an arrangement with Broadway Records, itself a new company just setting out to make a name in the Broadway musical theater community.

The arrangement between 54 Below and Broadway Records allows for the recording of shows in the club with sterling audio pick ups using the house sound system which Hylenski has seen to it permits superb blending whether the show is a vocalist accompanied by a single piano or a soloist backed by a small vocal group and club-sized band. Based on the audio quality of the first two releases, the hoped for potential has been successfully fulfilled.

And the music these recordings capture?

The first one in my CD player was Norbert Leo Butz’s romping, thumping Memory and Mayhem, a collection of idiosyncratic songs, most not from musicals. In his notes in the album’s booklet, Butz cites Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Van Morrison as his heroes. Think of blending the sound of these three with Butz’s own unique mixture of an actors’ way with the words and a musician’s feel for their place in the melody and meter, and you have an idea of the effect.

In his performances in musicals on Broadway from Rent to Wicked to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Catch Me If You Can, Butz has been notable for finding a way to make each song he sings feel it is a personal expression of an emotion of his character. For this club act, it is his own character that is on musical display, both from the selection of material to its delivery. There is a personal connection to each of the songs. For example, the addition of just two words, “my little,” to the title phrase for his rendition of “Georgia On My Mind” gives the song an entirely new set of emotional connections after he explains that his Georgia is his 18-month old daughter.

Less specific but no less mesmerizing is his gentle duet with vocalist Lauren Kennedy (Spamalot, Side Show, Sunset Boulevard, Les Misérables) on “Poison and Wine.” Later, he mixes Merle Travis’ “16 Tons” with David Yazbek’s “Great Big Stuff” which he introduced in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. The juxtaposition of the two becomes a classic with a honkey tonk piano and even a honkey tonk guitar. That piano is Michael Moritz, Jr. who was the music director and arranger for the set. He can sound like George Winston at times and a bit like George Shearing at others. There are dueling guitars as Dave Rimelis sets aside his violin to pick up a guitar to join Kenny Brescia (who, Butz tells the audience, was the original Rent guitarist).

Next into my CD player was the disc capturing LuPone’s club-opening set.

No other singer sounds like her. (Of course, the same must be said of Butz.)

This lady must have the largest sinuses of any vocalist on the Great White Way, which results in a slightly whiney sound which her equally huge talent turns to her own advantage, creating an unmistakable, uniquely identifiable sound. This, combined with her tremendous attention to enunciation and devotion to the delivery of the meaning and drama or humor of the “scene” she is creating out of the song is a fine match for a small club atmosphere.

She’s backed by Joseph Thalken and four other superb musicians who, collectively, LuPone repeatedly refers to as the “Gypsy Drifters” - Antony Geralis on accordion and keyboards, Larrly Saltzman on guitar and banjo, Andy Stein handling both violin and saxophone (not your normal doubling) and percussionist Paul Pizzuti. They fill the hall.

LuPone tells a few stories, links a few songs into themes and puts a different spin or meaning on each lyric. Who knew that Johnny Mercer’s lyric for “I Wanna Be Around” is really about Sicilian personality traits? She gives us a generous sampling of Kurt Weill including the “Bilbao Song,” “Pirate Jenny” (which she places right next to Stephen Sondheim’s “By The Sea”) –– and just why shouldn’t a woman sing “September Song?”

These two marvelous releases set a high bar for the series as more and more of the acts that play 54 Below find their way onto disc.

The next two have already been announced and should continue the high standard: Gifts by Christiane Noll (Jekyll & Hyde, the 2009 revival of Ragtime, Chaplin) is due out February 5 and 70s and Sunny featuring the original Annie, Andrea McArdle (also Les Misérables, Starlight Express, Beauty and the Beast and State Fair on Broadway) follows on February 26th.

Let us hope they keep them coming.

Memory and Mayhem: Live at 54 Below
Leo Butz
Broadway Records catalog
66 minutes over 20 tracks
List price $18.98
Far Away Places: Life at 54 Below
Patti LuPone
Broadway Records catalog
60 minutes over 20 tracks
List price $18.98

Live 54 Below Recordings

January 22, 2013