Ari Shapiro

August 17, 2017 | By

With his luxurious vintage-yet-current baritone, and his educated demeanor and sleekly handsome presence, it was easy to forget that Homeward was Ari Shapiro’s freshman solo cabaret performance. If his is a face for radio, we’re in luck. Nonetheless, it’s a steep learning curve to go from Broadcast Journalist to Seasoned Crooner on your first show at Joe’s Pub.

Shapiro is a host of NPR’s All Things Considered, and at 38 is a veteran reporter. He was the White House Correspondent during the Obama Administration 2010-14, was embedded in the Mitt Romney campaign in 2012, has covered conflicts in Iraq, Ukraine, and Israel, and prior to that was NPR’s International Correspondent based in London. A moonlighting singer, he’s a frequent guest with the multilingual band Pink Martini. He has worked in so many places and witnessed so much; there’s a soundtrack to all that—one that he’d love North American audiences to hear, given that we tend to gloss over the experiences of “war people in war places.” He took us inside the musical storytelling of conflict, with a few wild card offerings.

He opened in French with “Fils de” (Jacques Brel, Gérard Jouannest), a waltz set in WWI that proclaims that in their innocence, all children everywhere are the same. It introduced us to the strong, suitably international feel of the arrangements by musical director-pianist Gabriel Mangiante. (The other members of the band were Robbie Schaefer on guitar, Aron Rider on cello, Bill Hones on bass, and Paul Keesling on drums.) Sung in Kurdish, “Ay Shengal,” by Adir Jan Tekîn of the “Cosmopolitan Kurdesque” band Adirjam, had a brooding Euro-pop ballad sound; the jewel of the number was Rider’s cello solo. Shapiro told the story of the way Isis has targeted Kurdish people of many religions in Northern Iraq; the Yazidis, upon successfully preventing the destruction of their beautiful temple, said simply: “we didn’t celebrate; we just cried.”

And then, some up-tempo bluegrass: Melanie Safka’s “Momma Momma” was attacked with a little more vocal power than a roots song might need; it featured Schaefer’s great guitar work. Shapiro sang Damascus band Khebez Dawle’s “Belsharea” in Arabic, inserting in the middle of the song a spoken narrative telling how, as refugees, the Syrian musicians’ lives had been in danger and that though they lost one member, the rest of the band eventually arrived to live safely in Germany.

Quick transition into Noël Coward’s “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?,” which Shapiro embraced as a saucy, comic, lean-on-the-piano-and-complain kind of number; it would have been a fabulous opener. You have to hand it to anyone who can casually toss in a Ryan Seacrest reference and make it scan. This sardonic part of his personality nicely cut through some of the sorrow of the war stories, yet still underlined his political point with a nice jab at the bourgeoisie. At a cabaret and in life, we hope to be entertained and pleased at every turn. Sung in German, “The Boys in the Backroom” (Frederick Hollander, Frank Loesser), a 1939 Marlene Dietrich special, was somewhat puzzlingly paired with the traditional “When the Saints Go Marching In” as a medley, with some of the latter’s seldom-heard apocalyptic lyrics included.

The Scots apparently worked out their bloodlust early, so their recent tradition of referendums for Independence from the UK could be a hopeful example of conflict without war. Because Shapiro does not shy away from a linguistic challenge, “Flower of Scotland” (Roy Williamson) featured a verse in Scottish Gaelic; it was given a satisfyingly upswelling musical arrangement. (At the late show, Alan Cumming joined Shapiro in a duet of the song.) The traditional “Plyve Kacha” showed its mournful colors sung in its original Ukrainian. Written by William Finn in commemoration of 9/11 and part of his his song cycle Elegiies, “When the Earth Stopped Turning” popped out of the set as being distinctly contemporary American musical theatre; Shapiro powered-up and let it rip.

He ended with a medley of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” and George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.” Shapiro then indulged in “Over the Rainbow” (Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg) as his encore. He made a case for the song’s being more than just a cabaret chestnut, having been written by a proudly Jewish-American team and stemming from a wish for a far-away peace as WWII was starting in 1939. This is a tough song to do well, not just because it’s been done and been done again, but also because the pain and hope are still so resonant that the song demands that you step up and bring your heart to the mic.

Shapiro’s articulation of complex ideas in some ways worked against his performance style. He had something important to say about the stories that deeply touched his conscience, but in keeping with his credentials as a journalist, he showed that passion by informing us. God knows that as a culture, we need more informing than we need entertaining, but I felt as if Shapiro were a hot date who was still explaining when I was ready for a kiss. Telling an extended story midway through a song is a bit problematic; it’s hard to keep momentum when you stop singing and start talking. Music and live performance have their own conventions to create forward motion; intellectual content usually has to be trimmed in order to invite listeners to fully engage on an emotional level.

He is a natural talent as a singer: totally at home on the mic, intimidatingly good with languages, and graced with a sly, campy sense of humor; but he’s still developing his trust for the rhythm involved in this particular kind of storytelling, and developing the acting skills that would lift ideas out of informative realms and into experiential ones. However, his message that we are not separate from our fellow living, breathing, musical human beings who live with conflict and create in the face of destruction is poignantly well-timed and necessary; as he gets his bearings as a cabaret performer, it will be even more powerfully delivered.

Joe’s Pub – August 13

Category: Reviews

About the Author ()

From Canada, Penelope Thomas came to NY to study dance with Merce Cunningham; then through a series of fortunate and unfortunate events, she wound up back in singing and acting. Credits include lead vocals with FauveMuseum on two albums and live at Symphony Space, singing back-up for Bistro Awards director Shellen Lubin at the Metropolitan Room, reading poet Ann Carson’s work at the Whitney, and touring North America and Europe with Mikel Rouse’s The End of Cinematics. In Toronto, she studied piano at the Royal Conservatory of Music and cello with the Claude Watson School for the Arts, and in New York she studied music theory with Mark Wade. She's taught in the New School’s Sweat musical theatre intensive and taught dance in public schools and conservatories.

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