Interview by Rob Lester …This Wednesday (August 10) at 9:30 marks the NYC solo cabaret debut of a knockout performer. Blake Zolfo—with poise and panache, sincerity and sparkle— gave a chic sneak peek to us at the Salon open mic. New in town, but not quite a babe in the woods, he brings a refreshing mix of glow and knowhow in his “wow” factor. The Salon’s theme was “When We Were Young” –and he is still that, but “the Indiana boy” he tells me in our interview that he surely still is (I have no doubts) seems nicely mixed with more than a hint of an articulate “old soul.” There’s a comfort level, thoughtfulness, understanding and deeper well of emotion that come through in speaking to him and in his golden-voiced performances. That glowing gold is not overly polished to the point of his clearly solid training outshining the truth of feelings that come through when he is enveloped in a lyric. The recent Boston Conservatory of Music grad — who’s also had private instruction in voice, acting, and dance – demonstrates the fruits of his labor of love, but there’s a real feel with no “robot” factor in his brave and uncluttered ways with a variety of songs. He’s got an eclectic set list that you can witness at the Wednesday wonderful-I’m betting dawn of a career and you can join the early fan club members for FREE by WINNING THIS WEEK’S QUIZ (See the last paragraph below, marked “GET IN FREE”).
“Steve Schalchlin has taken me under his wing,” Blake told me about the songwriter between bites of a very New York coffee shop pastrami sandwich. “We talk and sing and go over songs at 4:30 in the morning every Wednesday in a rehearsal room.” I trust that THIS Wednesday, he’ll opt to sleep later (if he can) to be fully rested for his evening show, or at least have an afternoon nap. But wait a minute—who in their right mind, even in The City That Never Sleeps, is awake at that hour and regularly being the crack of dawn early bird that catches the worm—or catches the subway to Times Square? “I had gotten this early shift working at a gym, and my body just got used to waking at 3:30 A.M., so I still do.” I suppose the earning-a-living habit of working at a gym reception desk before the crack of dawn is not quite as disciplined as working OUT at a gym like the obsessed customers he’d greet while sipping coffee and yawning. Now he just opens his mouth wide to sing for his fellow early riser, Steve, the musical theatre writer who’s become an important part of Manhattan’s cabaret community.
The way they met and became friends –and mentor/mentee—was lucky and lovely. Blake was running a theatre company looking for a project to round out their season. There wasn’t time for another complicated, full-length musical in a small window of time between other shows. Someone suggested a Schalchlin piece that was more of a concert piece—New World Waking.
Richly musical and emotional intense, it wasn’t typical Shubert Alley fare, but it was right up zealous Zolfo’s alley, not being one to shy away from gutsy stuff full of feeling and soaring songs. Steve came up to give the company his perspective and see their production. It got his stamp of approval and Blake got his approval as a creative artist who’d handled his work with care.
“I thought that would be that,” Blake told me. “But then, some time later, I came to New York to audition for something…..” (The ambitious and talented fellow has procured himself an agent.) And then what? “I just decided to send Steve a message and ask if he happened to be free and had time for coffee.” He had time for coffee…. And one cup led to another and for Steve to “raise a cup of kindness yet” not for Auld Lang Syne, but for a new mutually rewarding partnership. Steve and his personal/ professional partner, actor-singer Jim Brochu, were soon touting the terrific talents of the young performer and Blake joined them at the Metropolitan Room to sing one of the songs from the score of The Last Session, Mr. S.’s musical about a songwriter with AIDS, inspired by his own close call with death via disease. The club’s head man, Bernie Furshpan, only had to hear that one song to know he wanted to book him. And, as of this Wednesday, we may officially say “And the rest is history.”
Blake was also asked to perform at the club’s memorial for the much-missed Dana Lorge and his sweet voice brought some light to a dark time for many cabaret followers still grieving our friend.
Asked to put his thoughts about the new New Yorker who’s a pro yet a protégé, and the triple-threat complete package, the songwriter told me, “Blake’s angelic voice, slender, athletic dancer’s body, intense, innocent blue eyes and sexy, wry youthful intelligence, musically explores his personal journey of love on the cusp of a beautiful and heartbreakingly painful, but inspiringly indomitable new adulthood.”
Indeed, in his low-mileage-as-yet official “Adulthood,” Blake is very much in touch not just with the Indiana boy he was/is, but the fairy tales and perhaps sugar-frosted, frothy fairy tales of idealistic rapturous-romance that fill storybook pages and impressionable imaginations. The first part of his Happily Ever After (See Footnote) cabaret act talks about those self-appointed powerfully picture-perfect prince and perky pretty pink princess pairs and falling in love with love as the cure-all. Fast forward to tumultuous teens (start to finish) and, intermissionless, college and post-college with one relationship following another following another. Long or short they may have been, but the long and short of the longing and the lusting and the loving was “I realized that I had never, since 13, been SINGLE — until now.” It was quite a change–and felt strange. Always thinking of himself as one half of a couple, his new solo status has stirred up a wake-up call and feels odd. This becomes a major focus of his cabaret show as perspectives change. It’s still very much an organic awareness in the making. “This isn’t a reflective show. It’s not about ‘what I’ve learned’; it’s more about what I’m learnING,” he specifies.
Clearly, or at least clearer as we talk, the guy is learning, growing, those bright blue eyes taking in everything except jadedness, and an hour flies by and a next-day follow-up follows suit (more hours fly by and there’s more pastrami at the Triple Decker Restaurant for this triple-threat performer). He’s thrilled about singing the mix of pop, a dab of country, and musical theatre for his debut. He admits it’s daunting. Referencing a song from Into the Woods, he says the mixed feelings are crystallized in Red Riding Hood’s description, “Well, excited and scared.” He’s a big fan of its writer, Stephen Sondheim, telling me with awe that he learned heaps from the songwriters’ books about the craft of writing. And he’s tried his hand at some lyrics, coming up with an autobiographical variation on vengeance and vexation that is Gilbert & Sullivan’s delicious declaration of “I’ve Got a Little List.” Expect hexes on the “ex”-es. His eyes twinkle mischievously, then return to that state Steve so aptly described.
Blake’s pianist/musical director is the veteran Mark Janas, also the man behind the keys and, with producer Tanya Moberly, the brains behind the current incarnation of the Salon Open Mic held most Sundays at Etc. Etc. Restaurant on West 44th Street, just East of Ninth Avenue.
♥ Rather than introduce the invited special guest singer as a client or someone whose show he was musical-directing and co-creating ideas for, as Blake gratefully gushed when with me, Janas said admiringly, that the audience was about to hear “a young man I’ve become a fan of.” Classy. Asked for an observation from a musician’s point of view, for this article, Mark was not at a loss for words: “Blake Zolfo is a very gifted, bright, charming new addition to the cabaret scene. His intelligence and passion project through a seamlessly beautiful tenor.”
Mark and Steve provide back-up vocals for the man of the hour for the playful “Stuck on You,” from the musical revue Whoop-Dee-Do, delighting the chuckling audience —consisting mostly of fellow singers of varying skill levels strong to struggling — with the fun number. It’s tough to predict what the show’s highlight will be, if only because he didn’t want to spill all the beans, and, as a reviewer who’ll be there on the job, I don’t really like to know the entire set list. But he will be including some of the musical theatre material he’s long loved and performed, a few “obscure” things he relishes discovering and diving into, and a theme-appropriate number by a favorite tunesmith of his, Sara Bareilles, the singer-songwriter currently represented on Broadway by her own kind of NYC debut, Waitress. Inevitably, our own waitress comes along, fills my coffee cup yet again and asks if she can get us something. I resist telling her that I’d been checking out Blake’s Youtube videos between interview segments and that HE is really “something,” but I try to keep my objective reviewer’s hat on and not pre-write a review for what I strongly feel will be a strong debut review without further ado for you-know-who. The rest of my scribbled notes will have to wait for another online time. With some post-show comments, of course, from yours truly and this truly talented guy…”If I can survive and scrape myself off the floor after the show,” jokes zippy Zolfo. I’ll bring a scraper just in case, but I think he’ll ace it. It’s a distinct pleasure to meet someone who’s unspoiled with ego, and is ready, willing, and able to wear his heart on his sleeve. And, speaking of sleeves, he quips that, after having seen him perform in person and getting together for two different chatty interview days, “Another thing you know about me is that I have more than one shirt.” Although I note he favors shades of turquoise both days, he definitely has many colors in his voice. If you go to the page at the Metropolitan Room website’s calendar page where you can make a reservation for his show, you can see and hear a primo live performance sample video. Here’s the link:
GET IN FREE: CONTEST—-Four people reading this will get free admission to Blake’s one-night-only (well, so far) debut this Wednesday at 9:30 pm. Three of you will get your music charge waived, and just be responsible for the two-drink minimum and a tip for your friendly server and one slightly luckier winner will have no minimum and indeed will even receive one free drink! Interested? Of course, there is a catch and the catch is …a cabaret quiz. Deadline is noon on Wednesday. If we don’t get four winners who get all four answers correct, we’ll pick someone at random who got a wrong answer or two, so enter anyway if you never know quiz answers, because you never know—you could still win.
- NiteLife Person of the Week Blake Zolfo now joins the cabaret world of NYC whose “citizens” include many talented performers who have won its awards such as the MAC, Nightlife, Bistro, and BroadwayWorld. One is a powerhouse vocalist whose last name is our Person of the Week’s first name and another is a singer, pianist, songwriter, musical director, coach, and Salon regular who shares the first name of one of them and the initials of the other. Name either. (Or, if you can name both, the extra correct answer can substitute for any wrong answer below).
- Blake Zolfo has 5 letters in his first name and 5 letters in his last name. Very symmetrical. Name another NYC cabaret singer OR a well-known singer of the Great American songbook who has the same number of letters in his/her first and last names. And tell us a song you’ve heard that person sing. (It can also be 5 letters in each or any other number as long as they are the same total letters in first and last names.)
- One of the love song standards in Blake’s set, done with glee at Salon, is “Taking a Chance on Love.” One of the co-writers of “Taking a Chance on Love” was John Latouche, an interesting musical character. What was the name of the bright and breezy revue of his very varied material which played at the York Theatre in midtown Manhattan and was recorded as a cast album? (Hint: The answer is within the question.)
- Hoosier Daddy: There are two very famous writers in the American Songbook who come from the Hoosier state, Indiana, as does Blake, son of Mike and Mickey. One of the writer’s daddy was an electrician named Howard Clyde _____ and the other’s daddy was a druggist named Samuel ______. Name either of the writers and your favorite song of his. A bonus if you can name both (or the extra correct answer can substitute for any wrong answer above).
Email me with your answers at OnTheJobRob@Gmail.com
More info at www.BlakeZolfo.com