By Melissa Griegel . . .
If you have not yet had a chance to see Ari Axlerod perform, I suggest you put that on your to-do-list. On November 28th, Chelsea Table + Stage was filled with Ari’s fans, including many stars of the stage, who have grown to love the warmth, charm, and beautiful singing that Ari brings to the table every time. A true mensch, Ari greeted and hugged many audience members as he made his way up to the stage, and genuinely thanked everyone who attended at the end of the show.
The cabaret concert, with Lawrence Yurman on piano, was in celebration of his debut album Ari Axelrod: Live at Birdland. Ari began his set with the first song off his album, “Pure Imagination/Neverland.” The rest of the set mostly follows the album which was recorded during his “Ari’s Arias” show, with a few substitutions. His somber tribute to Sondheim with Sara Bareilles’ “Once Upon Another Time” which includes the line “Sondheim on the radio” was sung with love while holding a yahrzeit candle reflecting his love for Sondheim. Five Sondheim songs graced the evening, including “Another Hundred People” and “Everybody Says Don’t.”
When you see Ari perform, you not only get beautiful, heartfelt, singing, you also get to know Ari. He draws you into his life talking about long car rides with friends listening to music, his diagnosis of Arnold Chiari Malformation and subsequent brain surgery, and adventures with his dog Leo. The highlight of Ari’s shows for many of his followers is when Leo comes on stage and lovingly puts his paws around Ari in a hug, with one paw resting gently on Ari’s brain surgery scars.
Ari’s Jewish identity is a vital part of his life and you can see and feel the connection he has when he sings in Hebrew or sings a song with Jewish ties. Particularly when he sings “Bring Him Home” from Les Misérables in a combination of Hebrew and English, the room is silent with people watching his facial expressions and hanging on to every syllable as he emotes such meaning and connection to every word. Likewise, when he sings Fiddler on the Roof’s “If I Were a Rich Man,” he embodies Tevye. The accent is there along with the feeling behind the words and a little hint of the famous Jerome Robbins’ choreography as he waves his hands in the air and does a little of Tevye’s dance.
When Ari tells a story, he enunciates every word, adds excitement and humor, shows feelings through his facial expressions and smiles, and looks deeply into himself as well as into the thoughts and emotions of the audience, making you feel as if he is looking into your soul. He is joy, passion and pure truth every moment. You feel seen and heard by him through the sheer warmth and genuine spirit that exudes from Ari’s every pore. You want to be along in the car trips he so lovingly talks about, singing along with his friends. You root for him as he talks about his medical history. And you want him to fall in love as he talks about the “sparkly life moments,” moments that “make life worth living,” and when he sings a song (“Pancakes for Dinner” by Lizzy McAlpine) he makes the connection . . . “sounds like what falling in love feels like.”
During the show, Ari mixes it up singing a variety of popular tunes as well as Broadway, and playing bongos for two pieces, including “Cool” from West Side Story, which he refers to as “the eighth wonder of the world, with Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim being the ninth and tenth.” Ari says that the brain surgery was one of the greatest gifts of his life, making him realize that time is not to be wasted and you need to make the most of every minute. Ari accentuates that with a story about his grandfather who was a cantor in Ukraine in 1929, and his father’s brother, an opera singer who was shot by the Nazis along with the other Jewish performers. He dedicated his performance to him, to “sing all the notes he didn’t get to sing.”
Gratitude was sincerely expressed from Ari as he thanked numerous people in the audience, like Christine Ebersole, and gave warm shout-outs to people who helped him tremendously with his album including Robbie Rozelle who “made the album what it is,” Jeff Harnar who lent “his creative eye” to the project, and Alex Rybeck who worked on the “Surgery Medley” with him. I could see Ari perform over and over again. Luckily, you can hear his stories and songs on his new album https://www.ariaxelrod.com/album, available on all of the streaming platforms and on his website https://www.ariaxelrod.com/.
Chelsea Table+ Stage is an elegant venue located in the Fashion District’s Hilton Hotel (152 West 26 St. NYC) with a diversely creative menu to suit every discerning palate and a wide range of entertainment.
Photos by Melissa Griegel Photography