NEW YORK OBSERVOR January 15, 2003
Mr. Nadler dissects Gershwin’s lyrics like they’re cargo passing through an airport security X-ray.
Holy Stravinsky, The Russians Are Back!
by Rex Reed
Years before the plague called reality TV, Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin wrote the ultimate celebrity challenge—a song entitled "Tchaikovsky (And Other Russians)". Performed by an unknown chorus boy named Danny Kaye, the song made its historic debut in the 1941 Broadway musical, Lady in the Dark. It also made Danny Kaye a star. This tongue twister—which consisted of the names of 49 unpronounceable Russian composers that Mr. Kaye rattled off like artillery fire in a breathtaking 39 seconds—has, for obvious reasons, rarely been performed since.
But musical legerdemain is now being repeated nightly by a nimble Jack-in-the-box named Mark Nadler in a winning new cabaret show called—what else?—Tchaikowsky (And Other Russians) that’s heating up a cold January like Dr. Zhivago’s samovar.
Appropriately, Mr. Nadler’s show has found the perfect showcase. He is inaugurating a brand-new cabaret room in the swell digs above the Firebird restaurant on West 46th Street. With its gilt-edged crown moldings, red walls of moiré silk, paintings of prancing, half-clad scarf dancers from Diaghilev ballets, and a centerpiece chandelier clamped to the ceiling with a chain, "kitsch" may be a better word for the new Firebird Club than "elegant." But it’s the ultimate setting for Stravinsky, Rumshinsky, Mussorgsky and dozens of other Russians who pepper Mr. Nadler’s act. This is not a run-of-the-mill cabaret act for dopes. Mr. Nadler expects his audience to bring along a bit of knowledge already. "If you can afford this cover charge," he informs the audience, "I probably don’t have to tell you who Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is." Let the fireworks begin!
Mr. Nadler may take slightly longer rolling all those names like Sapelnikoff, Dimitrieff, Tscherepnin and Kryjanowsky off his tongue than Danny Kaye did, but he savors every one. Telling little stories about each Russian, separating the truth from the gossip, Mr. Nadler dissects Ira Gershwin’s lyrics, analyzing them like cargo passing through an airport-security X-ray, and keeps you in stitches all the way. He also plays a soupçon of each composer’s work, "so you all get to know these guys." (Know them? I can’t even type them.) All of which leads to segues in which he samples new songs, old evergreens and contemporary styles on which all 49 composers exerted a distinct influence. The result is like Victor Borge meets Hellzapoppin’!, as Mr. Nadler slings sheet music over his head, scattering everything from Rimsky-Korsakov to Lorenz Hart all over the carpet. Threading the song together with personal anecdotes, he compares Tchaikovsky’s tribulations in 19th-century Russia with his growing up Jewish in Iowa, which somehow leads to the "Ugly Duckling" from Frank Loesser’s Hans Christian Andersen, which also starred Danny Kaye. When he gets to the lyrics about the "little black swans," his fingers are playing passages from Swan Lake. A thought or two about how those mean little ducks ended up in a sauce l’orange leads to Cole Porter’s "I Concentrate on You." Here, Mr. Nadler demonstrates a keen grasp of sensitive phrasing and soft, burnished tones seldom heard in his previous work (or, for that matter, in the rest of this act). Mr. Nadler should trust himself more on love songs; he’s developing a smoky ballad style that is a neat contrast to his usual mayhem.
But it’s his ability to imitate an exploding filing cabinet that makes this goofy, accomplished performer unique. He’s a combination of all the Marx Brothers put together, and you never know what he’ll do next. A few bars of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet leads to an impromptu discussion of a PBS documentary he just watched about the teenage brain. The corny theme by Borodin that turned into "Stranger in Paradise" in Kismet may seem an obvious choice to illustrate the Russian musical heritage, but after a couple of bars, Mr. Nadler halts abruptly and—resorting to an old trick perfected by the great jazz diva Frances Faye—declares, "I can’t do it; I hate that song!" Instead, he investigates the more obscure but similar theme in Ogden Nash and Kurt Weill’s "I’m a Stranger Here Myself."
The revelation of the evening is "Manhattan Blue," a navy blue torch song by veteran saloon singer and bon vivant John Wallowitch, which should be required listening for all wannabe cabaret singers looking for material that is hauntingly different.
Dashing around the room, rearranging the furniture, and blowing kisses to friends and celebrities, Mr. Nadler turns Ira Gershwin’s "I Can’t Get Started" into breakneck-paced chop suey. Nothing to do with the Russians, you say. But the music was by Vladimir Dukelsky, a.k.a. Vernon Duke. It all blends, see? Comparing Shostakovich’s fight to escape the repressive Stalinist regime with Mary Rodgers’ struggle to overcome the powerful legacy of her father Richard is, admittedly, a big stretch, but it leads into a lovable soft-shoe routine from Ms. Rodgers’ Once Upon a Mattress, performed in a sitting position while firmly planted at the piano bench. Part of Mr. Nadler’s charm is that what he does is risky, impudent and defies description. I won’t even tell you what he does to Sokoloff and Kopyloff, or Gretchaninoff and Rachmaninoff. As Ira Gershwin rhymed, "You’ve already undergone enoff."
This amazing feat of research and chutzpah may sound like an impossible task bordering dangerously on tedium, but Mark Nadler is a musical Punchinello who pulls more rabbits out of a hat than the teenage Houdini. Talented and fearless, he never runs out of fresh ideas, and he has the wacky style and infectious humor to pull them off. Tackling an entertainment project this cheeky and daunting, I think he may also be a little bit crazy. That’s the best part. In an otherwise dreary season of predictable revivals and ho-hum reruns, Mark Nadler an original. Mad joy is his signature, but I like the way he spreads it around.