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For the seventh year in a row, cabaret singer and local celebrity Ellen Ciompi provided a “date night” with her Valentine’s Cabaret, this year themed around her hometown and first love, New York City. Her regular fans were thrilled to hear stories of her childhood and why she had been inspired by the hustle, bustle, glamour, and grime of the Big Apple and newcomers to cabaret were in for a welcome introduction to the art form. Hosted in the funky downtown basement of Regulator Bookshop, the event had an intimate atmosphere aided by the conversational structure of the program.
As a daughter to two New York expatriates, I’m often conflicted between the classic charms of NYC and the grimy, chaotic place that it can be. Sometimes NYC-themed programs can be annoying and over-the-top because we all know that it has its famous parts, but that in reality it is a big city like many others, full of crime, traffic, garbage, sleet, and of course the veritable mountains of snow that pile up on the sidewalks. However, Ciompi explained that she was “not interested in the greatest hits” and overdone show tunes, but that she wanted to share with her audience, as she said, “my New York.”
The program was flashy yet understated, a blend of classic and modern songs sung in Ciompi’s easy-going mezzo-soprano, sometimes lyrical, sometimes gravelly, but always honest. From Frank Loesser and Cole Porter to Richard Rodgers, Paul Simon, and Mary Chapin Carpenter, the repertoire spanned over a century of music history (1894-2004). Notable works and some of Ciompi’s best moments were Loesser’s “Delicatessen of My Dreams,” her satire on Rodgers’ “My Favorite Things” where she sang about counterfeit things sold in Chinatown, and her finale, Porter’s “I Happen to Like New York.” The latter featured a brief reference to George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, one of the quintessential quasi-classical works depicting the hustle, bustle, and romanticism of New York.
Ciompi had not only the charm and poise necessary of a performer in this art form, but the wit and finesse of a comic and actor that made her immediately likable - everyone’s friend right from the start. Her personality and delicate treatment of a thin line between cheesy humor and genuine sentiment made it easy to forgive a little struggle to get up into her head voice and a couple of false starts. This is not to diminish her ensemble, maybe just their amount of rehearsal of the transitions. Pianist Glenn Mehrbach has been Ciompi’s regular accompanist for several years, and they complement each other well. Mehrbach’s jazz style with just enough classical training carries Ciompi through a variety of styles and moods effortlessly. Bassist Robbie Link was a welcome addition to this little combo, adding energetic plucking, graceful bowing, and a charming solo that finally came in the twelfth set of Rodgers’ “A Tree in the Park” and Sondheim’s “What More Do I Need?”
Sadly, it seems, that one cannot talk about New York City anymore without mentioning 9/11 and the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. Ciompi paid an homage to the events with a sobering set of newer songs, Simon’s “The Late, Great Johnny Ace” and Carpenter’s “Grand Central Station.” These wistful works, plus a sorrowful, introspective coda by Philip Glass, were beautifully performed and added a bluesy touch to the whole program, but seemed unnecessarily heavy for a Valentine’s Cabaret, which was so focused on shining twinkling lights over the cosmopolitan area of NYC. I might have saved this set for another time, though it came across very well and certainly achieved the desired effect of asking the audience to reflect together.
Gradually working back up energy so as not to be jarring, Ciompi regained her conversational energy that permeated not just recitatives, but verses and songs. She built up to a big finish in “I Happen to Like New York,” in which Porter recounts all the good and bad of the town, acting as an effective reprise of the whole program. One of the best takeaways as a newcomer to cabaret was that “there is a song for everything,” as Ciompi remarked, and each song helped to share the performer’s background, personality, and impressions of one of the most remarkable cities in America.