January 9, 2003
He's 'Russian' around with a sly cabaret act
By HOWARD KISSEL
From the second he bounds onto the stage of the beautiful new FireBird Upstairs Supper Club, at 365 W. 46th St., Mark Nadler exhibits a spellbinding manic energy.
Entitled "Tchaikowsky (and Other Russians)," his act begins with the 1941 Ira Gershwin/Kurt Weill song with the same name, whose lyrics incorporate the names of 48 largely obscure Russian composers.
Nadler, who has a rich voice, rips through it at requisite breakneck speed, then sets out - only half-facetiously - to explain who all these composers were.
Since he is also a splendid pianist, he plays musical examples that often suggest these composers should not be obscure. Sometimes the musical illustrations are wittily absurd - like his demonstration that if you play the notes of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumble Bee" as chords, they resemble those his pupil Stravinsky used in "Rite of Spring."
Often the "musicology" is merely a pretext to sing. Discussing Tchaikovsky's loneliness, for example, he launches into a tender version of Frank Loesser's "Ugly Duckling," which he interlards with passages from "Swan Lake."
The act goes far beyond its ostensibly giddy premise.
I hesitate to say it has an intellectual subtext, because I don't want to frighten anyone.
Nadler's premise is that the artists we remember are those who take risks. To prove it, he sings works by a wild range of composers, from Vernon Duke to Adam Guettel to the too-little-known John Wallowitch - all with deep resonance.
He even does Stephen Sondheim's "Next," from "Pacific Overtures," which I never expected to hear in a nightclub.
What Nadler demonstrates is that great cabaret is really theater, stimulating and exhilarating, outrageous and hilarious.