By Marilyn Lester . . .
That disturbance in the Force, otherwise known as two years of Covid, has famously upended New York City’s cultural life. For Celia Berk, the award-winning vocalist who re-entered the cabaret scene a mere six or seven years ago, pandemic restriction birthed a new show, On My Way to You: Improbable Stories That Inspired An Unlikely Path, her most personal to date.
Besides being very obviously talented, Berk is one smart cookie, facts that a wildly admiring audience, who packed The Laurie Beechman Theatre to the gills, could immediately relate to and appreciate. The improbable stories were those of iconic performers who made an impression on and shaped Berk’s career as a performer. The unlikely path is hers: from an abandoned theatrical career to many years in corporate life, back to performing as a star cabaret diva. Her presentation was as much about narrative as it was about songs, each of which was carefully curated to relate to the icon in question. It was all executed with abundant smarts, with humor and grace and terrific choices of music known and unknown. Kudos to Berk, director Mark Nadler and music director-pianist Tedd Firth for their excellent input on the creative process.
It was her father’s obsession with early 20th-century megastar, Al Jolson, that steered the grammar-school-aged Celia to his story, and a dramatic opening—a cappella for a few bars—and then into performing “April Showers” (Louis Silvers, B.G. DeSilva) as a fine story-song introduction of the show. A narrative trope cleverly set up the stories about Berk’s influences, such as “What drove Ethel Zimmerman? In answering the question, Berk revealed that what drove herself was mother Phyllis taking her to see Ethel Merman in her last revival of Annie Get Your Gun. “I was hooked,” reveals Berk, and so, how appropriate to sing “Anything I Can Do,” a clever I and I twist on Irving Berlin’s “Anything You Can Do.”
And is it any surprise that a young Berk sang along to Barbara Cook in the family basement? Her own upper range offers clear tonality and seems a particular comfort zone for her. Berk’s ability to move up and down the scale is flexible, with an anchored landing in lower registers. Cook’s much-lauded and loved operatic soprano a la Berk was addressed in the question about this legend, “how do you find the courage?” with Stephen Sondheim’s “Anyone Can Whistle.” Another, very different Barbra, as in Streisand, served as a model about what a Jewish girl from the boroughs can achieve: “Boom!” (Charles Trenet). The very operatic Maria Callas, with her dramatic offstage life was another inspiration and in delivering “Di rigor armato” (Richard Straus), Berk solidified her vocal tone dominance in the operatic realm.
But the most illuminating of all Berk’s influences was the improbable story of Nancy Walker, whose brilliant career of her youth faded into a completely different wavelength of performance as she grew middle-aged and beyond. The humorous and also wistful “I’m the First Girl (In the Second Row in the Third Scene in the Fourth Number)” (Hugh Martin) was a hit for Walker in 1948 in the Broadway musical, Look Ma, I’m Dancin’! What does it all add up to for the life travels of Celia Berk? Why, a medley of “Electricity” (Lee Hall, Elton John) and “Overjoyed” (Stevie Wonder), and the playout of a very meaningful “I Could Have Danced All Night” (Frederick Loewe, Alan Jay Lerner).
Needing no other instrumentation to back her (which might well have been a distraction), the always remarkable Firth supplied an abundance of creative ideas in his playing. He’s a pianist who’s a superior accompanist, able to tune in to a singer with empathy and understanding. On My Way to You also bore the creative stamp of the exuberantly delightful Nadler, who among other inputs, was no doubt an influence in encouraging Berk to be more animated than she has been in past performances. This triumvirate was a winning ticket for the success of an enchanting show.
Photos: Jeff Harnar
Celia Berk performed February 6 at Laurie Beechman Theatre (West Bank Café – 407 W. 42nd St. NYC)