Celia Berk

April 19, 2016 | By

Celia BerkNo sophomore slump here. On the contrary, Celia Berk’s new Metropolitan Room show, “Manhattan Serenade,” is even better than her remarkable debut outing of last season. Under the fluid direction of Jeff Harnar, Berk seems to have broadened her ability to embrace an audience while simultaneously assessing her bone-deep feelings about the subjects that concern her. In this case, her topic is New York, the city where she was born, lives now, and—you’re convinced early on—will never, ever leave for any reason. Despite its prosaic title, this show is far from your usual tribute to this city. You won’t hear either song entitled “New York, New York,” or “Autumn in New York,” or even “Take Me Back to Manhattan.” Instead, Berk and her musical director, arranger, and pianist, Alex Rybeck, as is their wont, have unearthed some mostly forgotten treasures. These include not one, but two infrequently performed but worthy Rodgers and Hart songs: “A Tree in the Park” and “I Gotta Get Back to New York.”

This show is occasioned by the April release of Berk’s second CD, also called “Manhattan Serenade.” Twelve of the fifteen songs in this set come from the album, including the title track by Louis Alter and Harold Adamson. An Irving Berlin song from 1931, “Manhattan Madness,” is frenetic enough in content and delivery to reflect the pace of the borough today. The one Broadway show tune here is relatively obscure (for Kander & Ebb): “All I Need (Is One Good Break)” from Flora, the Red Menace, reflecting an ongoing struggle to find work in the big city. Debbi Whiting, with the help of Tex Arnold, resurrected a trunk song written by her grandfather Richard Whiting and Gus Kahn, “A Day Away from Town,” and gave it to Berk for its performance debut. Another previously unheard but delightful number is “The Broadway Song” (Cy Coleman, David Zippel) from the unproduced Pamela’s First Musical, based on a Wendy Wasserstein children’s book.

One song most people in the audience will know is “Up on the Roof” (Gerry Goffin, Carole King), which Berk gives a lovely, ruminative reboot far from its 1959 Drifters R&B original. Another somewhat familiar song is the ravishingly regretful “The People That You Never Get to Love” (Rupert Holmes), which Berk makes her own emotively, in part by leading into the song with a segment of “The Romance of a Lifetime” (Kurt Weill, Sam Coslow). Two selections that touch on the non-joys of apartment living are “Lonely House” (Weill, Langston Hughes, from Street Scene) and “The Party Upstairs” (Ronny White, Francesca Blumenthal), a charming pun title that has the party downstairs both annoyed at the noise overhead and her exclusion from it, and wondering about who exactly is the party upstairs and will she get to know him.

In the admirably wide range of her material and performance styles, Berk is more than ably abetted by a superlative quartet: Dan Willis on flute, clarinet and saxophone; Dan Gross on drums; Jered Egan on bass; and Rybeck, at the top of his form as both piano accompanist and arranger. As for the singer, herself, she seems even to have widened her mezzo vocal range along with her already uncanny connections to her audience and to her lyrics. New York is not just any city, and Celia Berk is not just any singer.

“Manhattan Serenade”
Metropolitan Room – April 3, 10, 17, 24
Run extended: May 16, July 13, August 3, October 14

Category: Reviews

About the Author ()

Robert Windeler is the author of 18 books, including biographies of Mary Pickford, Julie Andrews, Shirley Temple, and Burt Lancaster. As a West Coast correspondent for The New York Times and Time magazine, he covered movies, television and music, and he was an arts and entertainment critic for National Public Radio. He has contributed to a variety of other publications, including TV Guide, Architectural Digest, The Sondheim Review, and People, for which he wrote 35 cover stories. He is a graduate of Duke University in English literature and holds a masters in journalism from Columbia, where he studied critical writing with Judith Crist. He has been a theatre critic for Back Stage since 1999, writes reviews for BistroAwards.com, and is a member of The Players and the American Theatre Critics Association.

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