In an email promoting his show “CHARLIE! Anything but Basic” at the Metropolitan Room, Charlie Johnson made a few rather grand claims. He described it as “a terrific new act” and added that he has a “unique performance style [that combines] classic cabaret with a modern-day sensibility in a way no one else is doing.” Well, he wasn’t just whistling Dixie. He delivered on every assertion.
Rarely have I seen a cabaret artist with so fertile an imagination and so playful a spirit.
In a sense the show was “classic cabaret,” as he claimed it would be. The structure had been carefully thought out, with patter between the musical numbers that set up the songs. The eclectic set list even included several Tin Pan Alley, pop, and theatre standards, such as Frank Loesser’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?,” sung straight à la 1940s crooner, and an earnest reading of James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight.”
But in this evening filled with surprises and delights, few things stayed “basic” for long. His rendition of Harnick and Bock’s “If I Were a Rich Man” would have been fairly traditional but for the bumps and grinds and the bebop up-tempo ending. He sprinkled his interpretation of Kander and Ebb’s “Nowadays” with scampish insertions and substitutions. (My note on that performance reads “mischief-maker Topsy.”) And there were his tambourine-thumping, irresistibly rhythmic performance of Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and, perhaps best of all, an original song, “Chipotle,” which Johnson wrote with his musical director, Ethan Andersen; it was bluesy, jivey, quirky and altogether wonderful. (Andersen on piano, Joe Cosmo Cogen on drums, and Chris Agar on bass were in synch with Johnson not only musically but also spiritually.)
There was a fair amount of patter in the show, but it never outstayed its welcome and most of it was very funny, although a couple of bits didn’t quite pay off or land. And as solid as his straight renditions of the few ballads were, he could dig one level deeper. The great comic performers (Fanny Brice, Bette Midler, Sidney Myer, et al.) could also make an audience weep, and I believe that level of artistry is within Johnson’s reach.
What made the show so exhilarating was not so much the physical energy of Johnson’s performance—though lord knows he’s no slouch in that department; it was the agility of his mind. Even his most unorthodox changes and performance choices were not gimmicky; rather, they sprang from his singular vision. In his email to me, Johnson had gone out on a limb and said, “I’m confident you’ll enjoy yourself.” There he undersold himself: I didn’t merely enjoy the evening; I was elated by it—I left the club on a high. And if he ever does decide to whistle “Dixie,” I hope I’m there to see it—I bet it would be something else.
“CHARLIE! Anything but Basic”
Metropolitan Room – March 23