Club Review: Ari Axelrod’s “Ari’s Arias”

December 19, 2021 | By

One of the many things that Ari Axelrod gets right on stage is sharing his gratitude. A medley of “Never Never Land” (Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green) and “Pure Imagination” (Leslie Bricusse, Anthony Newley) opened his evening at Birdland Theater, creating a fairytale mood; as if we were all going on a trip together and he was honored to take us. His skill and openhearted approach invited a unique level of trust with the audience, and because of that, Axelrod was able to take successful risks and go to particularly honest, personal places with his content.

Ari Axelrod (Photo: Billy Bustamante)

With appropriate reverence for Mr. Sondheim’s legacy and what sounds like a great revival of Company on Broadwayon the way to the venue I happened to think, “I hope no one ever includes ‘Another Hundred People’ in a show I’m reviewing.” Another hundred people have just covered that song. And so did their friends, and everyone else. Well, this was one of several ways Axelrod brought so much soul and skill to his choices that things that I’d guess might not work, did work. Beautifully. He sang this song with such specificity in his acting that I could see the visual picture of the subway, the wheels turning in his head, the earnest attempts at making connections when people are moving so fast. There were a few other things that on paper you’d advise a singer not to do—one of them: play the congas. I’d worry it would look like Mike Myers doing beat poetry in So I Married an Axe Murderer. But no, Axelrod actually has chops on percussion, and layered it into a stealthy version of “Cool” (Bernstein, Sondheim), highlighting music director Lawrence Yurman’s complex and compelling performance on piano.

A heartbreaking Hebrew version of “Bring Him Home” (Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel; translation by Ehud Manor) showed Axelrod in his upper range in a soft mix, with a fearlessly emotional take on the song that evoked grief for lost members of the Jewish community. In a lighter transition, his “If I Were a Rich Man” (Sheldon Harnick, Jerry Bock) was a hoot—his Tevye was bursting with hope, excitement, and big plans. 

And then, instead of voyaging up, up, and away, Axelrod spun the show around and circled back to the inner corners of his mind. His trust with the audience was well-established by this point, and hearing the story of the discovery of an Arnold Chiari Malformation in his brain stem at 20 and the subsequent medical journey in “The Surgery Medley” directed by Alex Rybeck (Benjamin Scheuer, William Finn, Adam Guettel) was an extension of that confidence. It colored all the subsequent material with a sense of why he is particularly thankful for his life, and his role as a performer and creator within it.

With all that empathy and love in the air, Axelrod brought in a professional: Leo the dog. Duets with animals could be problematic, but not here: “Not While I’m Around” (Sondheim) was a good chance to cuddle with a very patient Leo and thank him for his protection. “Unexpressed” (John Bucchino), a particularly beautiful song, encapsulated a sense of longing to find a place for all this love. When Axelrod came back to another Sondheim favorite, “Being Alive,” he delivered it lyrics-first with some edge to it, and let loose an expansive vocal range. The life-or-death stakes of his own story landed his authority to take on the big themes early in his career.

***

Presented at Birdland Theater, December 12, 2021.

Category: News / Reviews / Commentary, 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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