An Evening at the Carlyle
nytheatre.com review by Hannah Gold
July 12, 2009
Some productions raise the bar, while others make you want to hit the bar. An Evening at the Carlyle is an entertaining mix of both. The show is formatted in the style of a revue, traditionally a collection of short sketches, songs, dances, and satires. It takes place in the Carlyle Hotel's famous Bemelmans Bar, with its exquisitely sultry lamplight and gaggle of posh inebriates. This hotspot is adazzle with starry-eyed boozers and star-studded celebrities, all of whom contribute to the upper-downer score of 24 songs. The show is altogether charming, though it lacks even an inkling of newness, and sinks to distressingly low depths at times. By the end of the evening I had experienced a varied lineup of original theater tunes by composer/lyricist Al Tapper, some smashing, and others smashed.
The show is most successful when it opts for a backward glance at the late and great of Bemelmans Bar, often reflected in the psychology of its guests. One woman, a failed songwriter fondly dubbed a "barfly" in the program, belts a hilarious and instantly true ballad about the roots of her neurosis. She woefully confesses to the bartender "My mother was despotic / So I learned to be neurotic when I was three feet tall," (sung nicely by Kelli Maguire). This song is one of the more authentic moments in the show, perhaps because Maguire is the only cast member who gets the chance to play only one character (besides Dennis Holland, who plays Tommy the bartender with subtle charm).
The evening benefits from a string of powerfully reminiscent ballads. A Yankees fan recounts tales of Joltin' Joe, the greatest athlete of 'em all, and a Sinatra wannabe sings about his fedora-sporting idol. Actors Jason Rowland and Michael F. McGuirk respectively deliver both songs with substantial flair. However, the most touching moments reveal themselves in old situations that still have some modern relevance. Tapper demonstrates his feel for New York in a smart and solid ditty entitled, "Roommates" about the perennial sacrifices two savvy urbanites have to make for a piece of real-estate.
At other times, however the heavy '30s influence mars the authenticity of the piece. For example, when one woman sits down for a drink, someone calls the bar asking for her, an action which seems anachronistic in the age of cell phones and pagers. Beyond that, the manner and speech of the characters often comes off as too hackneyed and hokey for a modern day bar, though it wouldn't have in the golden age of Broadway.
The show falls even more flat when it desperately employs some star power pizzazz to spice things up. A litany of jejune celebrity impressions left me neither shaken nor stirred. These big-shot visitors of the bar, all of which drag down the show, include Liza Minnelli, a Manischewitz-craving Barbra Streisand, and a lecherous Donald Trump. The imitation of Ann Coulter is a drop more successful and seeing "Rush Limbaugh in a mini skirt" do a jerky, robotic dance is amusing, I suppose. Amanda Gabbard does several of these impressions, but is at her best when she plays an average Jane, or as they call them at this swank Madison Avenue hotel, a Carlyle girl. Gabbard's performance of, "When Nobody Else Is Around," is terrific—arguably the strongest note in the show.
The production unfortunately has trouble with some of its celebrity-free ballads as well. "You Make It Easy To Love You," is, you guessed it, a mushy love song about the love of two lovey-dovey lovers. Sadly there is a guy in the bar who is also in love with the woman who is in love with the other man—I say sadly because it leads to another similar song. As a chaser to this sickly sweet concoction the young man, besotted by the rejection of his affections, decides to express himself by singing "Did You Do It For Love?" which is so syrupy you can't help but wish for something dryer and with more olives.
In contrast to the cloying cliché of some of the songs, the set provides the actors with a sophisticated bar stool jungle to play with. John McDermott does a great job in creating a believable Bemelmans with its mahogany walls, rich, smoky lights, and fully stocked bar. Where the set is most successful is its enthusiastic reach into the spectator seats. Two tables are set up in front of some lucky front-row audience members who are served seltzer before the performance begins (after all, sobriety is no quaint notion in this show).
Ultimately much of the performance comes off as a hodgepodge of expected, tired tunes and, to my taste, is in desperate need of a twist. However if you enjoy your poison (and your Broadway-style sing songs) straight up, this is the show for you. For all its foibles An Evening at the Carlyle is still a lovely revue, wonderfully sentimental in tone and as lush as Bemelmans' barflies.