Rob Lester Previews Intriguing New Cabaret Show with Andrea Axelrod and Barry Levitt

© Winston Mathis
Article: Rob Lester ~

Love—or a reasonable facsimile.  Or maybe just another shade of the red hot.  Hearing their colorful ideas and hearing them perform in a private rehearsal increased my anticipation for rich-voiced singer Andrea Axelrod’s upcoming show that’s putting her in safe and skilled piano hands of Barry Levitt. 

More than fingers that can tickle the ivories into any musical shape that tickles the fancy of this rich-voiced vocalist, he’s always thinking and adding his perspective and years of musical-directing and matching her sensible sensitivities.  You may not know Andrea, as she hasn’t been around the scene of late, but she’s been around and she’s back.  If you’ve gone to entertainment venues in the city, you’ve probably happily run into Mr. Levittt, affectionately called “Maestro” by his colleagues, and deservedly so.  His supportive and creative work makes everyone shine, from a struggling student in Marilyn Maye’s master class (he’ll be at that gig on June 11, nine days before premiering his work with Miss Axelrod on June 20 at the Metropolitan Room) to a master entertainer like Ben Vereen and Carol Woods, just to name two powerhouses profiled in the current and upcoming summer issues of the magazine Cabaret Scenes).   With his own workshop students demonstrating their wares at Don’t Tell Mama to the long-running, much-missed anchoring of Terese Genecco and her Little Big Band at Iridium to his frequent stalwart and game anything-goes accompaniment with the variety shows of the late Dana Lorge, Levitt has been almost ubiquitous for years. 

The theme of the Axelrod/Levitt show is a certain fascinating subset of that endless cavalcade of songs about the most common of all topics…yes, good ol’ lovely (or not so lovely) love.  While so many classics and wannabe-classics’ lyrics proclaim a fully convinced mindset about being in love with somebody and everything being rhapsodic, they’ve come up with a set list that explores the close-but-no-cigar near miss of the mark that may or may not be the real thing.  And by “real thing,” I mean the quest for idealized real thing OR a more mature, realistic “real thing” relationship.  These not-quite YET points in relationships or even the occasional not-quite ANYMORE points are the point of their point of view.  Almost Like Being in Love: Songs on the Cusp of Love is the name of this June tune-fest, emphasis on the “Almost,” almost always, with the included standard of that main title from the Lerner and Loewe musical Brigadoon as a prime example.  (“I’m all aglow and alive….What a rare mood I’m in…There’s a smile on my face for the whole human race….Oh, the music of life seems to be/ Like a bell that is ringing for me”). 

The delightful-to-interview/delightful-to-hear-and-watch-perform Andrea Axelrod seems to have a permanent twinkle in her eye that reveals her mischievously playful side and attitude and a twinkle in the other eye that evidences a sobered glow of gratitude for life’s blessings among a sea of troubles.  Miles away from being either naïve or jaded, an adult’s warm wisdom and lessons learned pervade her conversation and phrasing when singing.  But she can turn on a dime in interpretations to flash back to a point where the learning about self and the euphoria or toxicity of romantic love was still new, unfamiliar territory.  She can project a less-traveled lady on that rocky road, happily settling for those unsettling feelings.  Romantic also-rans and might-have-beens and used-to-be objects of (dis)affection are fascinating topics for songs, she knows.  The long-experienced Levitt agrees wholeheartedly.  When they met and she told him the themes she was considering, he immediately enthused about the one they’re working on so happily.  Seeing them so simpatico in action is a cabaret yin and yang, her bubbling-over enthusiasm with his tempered rock-solid practicality, his arrangements fleshing out her acting choices and moods she establishes with voice and facial expressions. Hearing them finish each other’s sentences, sharing an opinion and sharing a laugh, they are on the same page of their songbook.  

 And I know the dynamic duo will enlarge into the three musketeers of musical same-focus portrait painting when added is frequent Levitt bandmate, the masterful bassist Jon Burr. (He’s a frequent cabaret and jazz sideman whose side this man is on as an admirer, having enjoyed his playing immensely in many settings, but whom I only encountered on the day of my recent interview as my appointment ended).  Indeed, they may become such a tight unit with Barry and Burr as a two-man band with Lady Andrea that we’ll start calling them Bandrea.

“It’s always interesting to work on this material with different artists,” comments Barry about the more familiar choices in the show, like Rodgers & Hart’s post-wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee realization that “Falling in Love with Love” can be no more than “falling for make-believe” and “a juvenile fancy.”  From the musical One Touch of Venus by Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash about the goddess of love coming to life in contemporary America comes the fish-out-of-water “I’m a Stranger Here Myself.”  Cabaret singers’ favorite Jerome Kern & Otto Harbach are represented by their “Let’s Begin” where one is eager to know “Which is it going to be: love or gin? Wife or sin?.” They’ve also decided on “Undecided,” that spunky oldie about someone who changes his or her mind about feelings more often that the New York weather has changed this alleged Spring.  Having played all kinds of less-often exposed numbers with a vast array of artists, jazzy and not, from those he accompanied on Broadway in Swingin’ on a Star to The Barry Sisters (no relation!!), relatively few out-of-the-box choices surprise him, but –like Andrea—he delights in the delightful fresh choices.    

They jump up with glee from our comfy chat chairs, challenging an unseen potential lover with a sly and sprightly “I Double Dare You” at near-performance level.  There’s that twinkle in her eye aimed at the imaginary audience I am a stand-in for, with this assertive bluff-calling lyric.

The terrific treatment has been a work in progress.  It has great variety.  There’s give and take between pianist and provocateur performing songstress.  “It’s about insinuation…not like a freight train…Don’t rush…It’s seductive…Play the truth of the moment” are some lessons they have agreed on. He can play a vamp and she can BE one.  They know the difference between a rendition working too hard to find a tone and know it can be a case of “Stop trying to be sexy” and just making it happen with the right timing and letting the material come through.    

Levitt and Axelrod dissect even the most surface of songs and find them rich in possibilities for cooking up to full potential, like two top chefs concocting the recipe and dressings that will bring out all the juice in filet mignon or flaming cherries jubilee.  Speaking of flames (and we do), then they turn to a bone-honest, grown-up number about finding a comfort zone with an old flame not quite burned out.  Its plainspoken title is “It’s Good to Have You Near Again.”  The seasoned actress in singer Andrea has imagined a back-story to inform her reading, and we talk about a woman who had a long relationship –marriage, maybe — with a man she is now reconnecting with, attractions rekindled, but not illusions.  We talk about this little-known number we both know from two albums recorded decades apart with the accompaniment of its composer, Andre Previn.  The recent airing was a pairing of Previn with Michael Feinstein while it premiered in the 1960s on a vinyl record where he fashioned the musical architecture for the opera star Leontyne Price, venturing into (mostly) established standards of the Great American Songbook.  Opera-turned-cabaret artist Sylvia McNair coincidentally released her version the week of our interview.  We talk at length about opera divas crossing over or being sunk by the attempt to navigate that great divide.  Scaling down a voice trained for the Met to play at an intimate Metropolitan Room kind of club is a skill that must be acquired and addressed.  Cabaret singing is about the lyric, not just resonant tone and thrilling, trilling, big or pretty sounds.  “That’s a biggie for me,” she remarks.  “I won’t sacrifice the song to be showing off the voice.”  She knows the impact of a looser approach, of back-phrasing. 

One of her shows, Shishkebopera!, skewers opera.  Andrea, who also teaches voice privately, indeed trained operatically, knows both worlds, though she did not perform in operas as a career.  “I collect crossover albums by singers I otherwise admire,” she tells me, pointedly.  And we reflect on the Price record we both acquired long ago.  Enjoying the impish side she shows in this, our first-ever meeting (though I’ve known and applauded Barry for years), I suspect she’d have gotten a kick out of a trick I’d play way back in the day when I was a sometimes-bored record store clerk.  Unable to resist a pun, I’d peel off the stickers affixed to our discounted reissues in the show tune room and apply them surreptitiously to the CDs of opera recordings on which La Leontyne played sympathetic roles, just to see if anyone noticed my intention when noticing this round sticker that proclaimed “The Nice Price!”  With a big voice she can pull back or let loose, Andrea is wise enough to know she can go big only “if it suits the emotion.”  She can croon and calibrate her voice to treat a gentle piece “as it’s meant to be sung,” noting that some musical cameos about romance can be considered “small, delicate flowers.”

Like Maestro Levitt, Miss Axelrod has been around the block and further (El Paso, The Hague, the State Department!).  She talks about the vast Lenin Auditorium where she performed as part of the Kiev International Music Festival —“Imagine the size!” — “with amps that looked like 1950s Buicks.”  But she’s ready for her close-up in the close-up-to-audience little clubs where she can make eye contact and sing right into the hearts and souls (and occasionally the funnybones) of an audience.  “There IS a toolbox,” she states about the vocal and theatre skills she’s honed.  Her background includes musical theatre, which she’s loved whether she was based in Pennsylvania as a career reporter covering everything from celebrity morticians to the more mundane deaths and disasters or New Rochelle.  With just the tiniest bit of queried prompting from me, she bursts into singing that town’s name as set to rapturous music in a number from the musical comedy How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. 

Some picks in the set are about being “just a smidgen in love.”  Others crave it.  A spiffy novelty number they’ve rescued is a kind of tour de force from 1929 called “Turn on the Heat,” with loopy references to Eskimos and frozen tundras, but it’s not just the room temperature being addressed.  The tireless pair demonstrates a smartly executed pair of songs melded together musically and in storytelling.  Andrea becomes the entranced young girl who may be the opposite of Rodgers & Hart’s worldly-wiser woman who knows that falling in love with love is no reality because she’s all aglow with meeting her prince just “Ten Minutes Ago” in Rodgers’ dance-y dream written with his other main partner, Oscar Hammerstein II, for this Cinderella fairy tale of what love is.  There’s a segue coming as the note for the final syllable of the exalted thought of “I may never come down to earth again.”  I won’t give away the surprise.  But they seem to be of one mind, whether that happens instinctively or after much discussion and considering of options; it works!

“She has ears,” says Barry in typical jazzman succinct sum-up about the Axelrod musicianship.  He smiles in appreciation as she speaks and sings, tossing off the bon mots of Noel Coward as she tells the tale of and becomes the surprisingly merry widow ready to kick up her heels “In a Bar on the Piccola Marina.”  Her vacationing attitude and readiness for lusty adventures rather than falling deeply in love is a more boisterous exploration of being on the further side of “almost” love, and they considered another Coward classic, the wistful “If Love Were All,” but found a mixed-emotions emotional pull when pulled to a more recent and less-known ballad, Edward Kleban’s “The Next Best Thing to Love.”  Andrea is radiant with this new-to-her discovery.  While a jazz singer or opera singer of elastic range and adeptness can be “very entertaining—nothing wrong with that,” she wants to use her voice in a different way.  “I want to tell a story with a song.  I want the words to be known.”  And felt.  And communicated.  She is on the right road, leading right to cabaret’s essence, without sacrificing the entertainment value and the glory of a gorgeous voice.   And with the music arranged and played by two sublimely gifted and savvy instrumentalists, making songs exquisite AND entertaining, heartfelt or heartbreaking.  It’s almost like being in love.