by JK Clarke
One of the more exciting developments in the cabaret scene in recent years has been the expansion and evolution of the type of performers playing the elegant Café Carlyle. Once the home base of Richard Rogers, Bobby Short and Woody Allen (who still plays Mondays), The Carlyle has branched out, inviting contemporary, progressive singers like Judy Collins, Joan Osborne and the dynamic Buster Poindexter to its staid stage. The latest addition of exciting, cutting edge talent is singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega, who made her debut at The Carlyle last night, beginning a nine evening performance run through March 25.
Though famously known for two hits—“Luka” and “Tom’s Diner”—from her second album, 1987’s Solitude Standing, Vega is best defined as a musical storyteller. Mellifluously spinning tales based in history, literature and, often, New York City life, she sweetens sometimes difficult subjects with beautifully written lyrics, and well-told tales, gently sung, but often disturbing upon closer examination. The lullabye-ish “Luka,” for example, is about a neighbor child who’s the victim of physical abuse.
Vega slipped easily into her Carlyle debut in a casual black suit (an allusion, perhaps, to her song “I Never Wear White”), occasionally donning a short black top hat (a nod to Marlene Dietrich whom she sings about in “Marlene on the Wall”), adding just that extra touch of class; and playing an evenly balanced mix of old and new music in a style that’s remained consistent and familiar throughout her career. Her unique style features soothing, smart songs that coax the listener to lean back, enjoy the music and fall into the story. She speaks to her audience with ease, relating to them now the way she did 30 years ago, a comfort to those who’ve always loved her and are consistently pleased with her latest work. Her small band, Jason Hart on piano and various synth instruments along with Gerry Leonard on guitar create a surprisingly full, rich sound that fills the cozy space.
The warm setting and lushly illustrated walls of The Carlyle Café are perhaps an ideal setting for a Suzanne Vega show. The soft, lovely Marcel Vertès murals tell small stories, possibly part of a larger whole, folding in perfectly with Vega’s roll-out of her new album, Lover, Beloved: Songs from an Evening with Carson McCullers, which was co-written with Tony Award winner Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening) and will be the music for their play of the same name debuting in Houston’s Alley Theater on Valentine’s Day next year. It’s an examination of the literary genius of the early 20th century novelist best known for The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, considered by many one of the greatest works of American literature. Those songs include “New York is My Destination,” which documents McCullers’ departure from her native rural Georgia to escape the racism and misogyny of the south and her arrival in New York City, which is “made for grander things./ Just. Like. Me” where, she dreams, she’ll “Lunch at the Algonquin./ Swing by the Plaza . . .” For this show, she suggests, she’ll substitute in “The Carlyle” she says with a smile, as she “puffs” on an unlit cigarette that is not hers, but McCullers.
Suzanne Vega’s residency at The Café Carlyle is a perfect opportunity for new fans to get to know her in an intimate environment and an even better occasion for long time fans to spend the evening getting to know even better the characters and places she so affectionately unveils in perfectly constructed, elegant melodies. It’s not to be missed.
Photos: David Andrako