A show that opens with Chita Rivera and closes with Liza Minnelli has something going for it even without the in between. But there was plenty of enjoyable entertainment between these iconic headliners at “The Best of Jim Caruso’s Cast Party” at The Town Hall on Thursday, February 17, 2011. The event, presented by impresario Scott Siegel, was a benefit for Broadway cares—Equity Fights AIDS.
Rivera was the official opening act, but first there was the introduction consisting of congenial, joke-filled banter with a bit of singing by host Caruso and pianist and musical director Billy Stritch, with references to Caruso’s renowned Monday night cast parties at Birdland. In fact, it took nearly 20 minutes before they got to Rivera. Although their chit-chat throughout the show was often amusing, paring it down a bit could have shortened the nearly three and a half hour production. But Stritch, whether singing or playing is outstanding, and there was the opportunity to appreciate how much fun the very likeable Caruso gets out of introducing acts and flashing some of his humor along the way.
Glutton for entertainment that I am, I can’t think of any act I would have liked to eliminate in the cause of a shorter evening. The lineup of the famous and less famous was formidable. Rivera set a keynote of pizzazz as she cavorted with “Sweet Happy Life.” Lucie Arnaz, who turned up looking sparklingly fabulous in a form-fitting mini dress, turned on her show biz know-how with “It’s All Right With Me” and “Something’s Gotta Give.”
The first act closed with Marilyn Maye, who in her eighties continues to be unbeatable for her combination of technique, voice, interpretation, energy and personality. She put her own stamp on “I’m Still Here,” which I have heard her do before. Whereas Elaine Stritch, who practically has a patent on the number, sings it as a world-weary assertion of durability, Maye belts it out with utter triumph at having lived through it all.
Aaron Weinstein’s wizardry on the violin is well-known by now on the cabaret circuit, but he was particularly funny with his imitation of Jack Benny playing “Love in Bloom.” That was before he showed how it really should be done. And speaking of the violin, another act was Dueling Fiddlers, two gentlemen playing violins opposite each other with such fury that strands were coming loose from their bows. Also in the instrumental category, Dave Koz was a knockout soloing on sax with “Over the Rainbow.”
A comedy highlight was the appearance of Miranda Sings, currently a YouTube hit, with her nutty style of vocal and facial contortions. She did her shtick of singing while a sword was supposedly being passed through her neck and the result was sheer hilarity.
Natalie Douglas treated us to her jazz-style “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Countess Luann De Lesseps gave us “Love” with a swinging beat. Lisa Mordente was outstanding with “Breakin’ Up Is Hard to Do.” William Blake, with his unusual voice and flamboyant demeanor, turned on the crowd with “Turn Me On.”
Add entertaining turns by Karen Ziemba, Andrew Gerle. Jenna Esposito, Hilary Kole, the reowned Larry Gatlin, Chris Sieber, Hinton Battle and footwork courtesy of the Mark Stewart Dance Theater and you get a further idea of the show’s scope. There was also the delightful Sally Mayes, although when she sang the amusing lyrics to “Viagra,” they were somewhat muffled in the amplification.
Which brings us to climactic standing ovation time for Liza Minnelli. There is something both triumphant and sad about Minnelli. Icon that she is, her mere appearance strikes an enthusiastic chord with her audience, and although a shadow of what she once was, she gives her present all, even though she sometimes needs to pause for water to get through a number. She turns any momentary setback into a plus with the knack of enlisting fans on her side. On this occasion she sang, “Confession,” “On Such a Night as This,” and then predictably brought the crowd to its feet with “New York New York.” Getting her to perform at the benefit was a welcome coup.
The show was directed by Rick Hinkson. In addition to Stritch on piano, Steve Doyle was on bass and Daniel Glass on drums, collectively referred to by Caruso as “our symphony orchestra.” At The Town Hall, 123 West 43rd Street. Phone: 212-840-2824.