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Elizabeth Ahlfors

54 Below: It’s Delightful, It’s Delovely, It’s Deluxe:
It’s Broadway’s New Living Room
254 West 54th Street
Cover charge varies. Drink or food minimum.

Broadway is the name and cabaret is the game. 54 Below is the new boîte created literally in the underbelly of the legendary Studio 54, once the disco club in town and now a Broadway theater featuring Roundabout Theatre Company productions. With major theatricality going on upstairs, the cabaret below the sidewalk, not associated with Roundabout, evokes a separate aura and a definite illusion.

The suggestion of 54 Below is not the swinging ‘70’s as much as a Prohibition nightclub of the ‘20’s (except there’s no door slot for you to whisper, “Joe sent me”). At the entrance, with chrome posts, velvet ropes, stands a burly doorman with a wide smile. A steep flight of stairs carries a whiff of the past with walls of burgundy flocked wallpaper and framed photographs of elaborately feathered and gowned showgirls. Rhythms of ‘20’s and 30’s jazz float up, maybe the voice of Billie Holiday, maybe Bessie Smith. There’s a speakeasy vibe here and if you want to see shows like I saw during the first six weeks of its existence, this is definitely the place to be.

Creative consultant, Scott Wittman says the room’s goal is to provide “cabaret for everyone,” with uptown and downtown tastes, traditional and quirky performers. The focus is theatrical and the shows are eclectic. The formal opening was an exhilarating new Patti LuPone performance emphasizing her gypsy side, “Far Away Places” (none of which, incidentally, included Argentina). Her original two-week run extended to a third week with several sold-out evenings. It was LuPone at her peak with the audience in the palm of her hand.

One blockbuster was followed by another with Broadway’s Brian d’Arcy James, who proved he can do intimate as well as concert and be as cool in the rock world as he is hot in theater. James introduced his New York cabaret debut with a look-back at the pop/rock tunes he loved as a teen. (See Review). Musical theater’s Rebecca Luker had two glorious nights, July 6 and 7, to shine a salute to Jerome Kern. Two nights for Luker is not enough; there are still many Jerome Kern songs for her to sing. She returned on July 9th to join perform Maury Yeston’s, “New Words.” Now that’s a new show idea, “Rebecca Luker Sings Maury Yeston.”

Three for three with four stars for each show.

Every night is an event. Booking manager Phil Geoffrey Bond suggests that if you happen to be in the Broadway area on a Sunday night, for example, drop in and mingle with theater crowds who like Jackie Hoffman, who has been a laugh riot in her Sunday night run from June 3 to July 29. Or try a Monday night, when the spotlight has been shining on theater composers performing their newest work, or watching singular sensations like Mx Justin Vivian Bond and cabaret’s popular Jamie deRoy and Friends.

On July 9, I visited the club for New Mondays, part of a songwriter series. That evening featured up-and-comers Adam Gwon and Brett Kristofferson, the unique Joe Iconis and Broadway veteran song master, Maury Yeston, all bringing singers to perform their music. Hosted by Phil Bond, each composer included work currently in progress but they also inserted some previously performed material. Composer and lyricist, Adam Gwon, reflected a youthful outlook on the complexities of the day with Whitney Bashore delivering Gwon’s crisp descriptions in “Favorite Places.” Brett Kristofferson’s music focused on contemporary personal turmoils and foibles with singer Angela Schultz effectively remembering the “Things That Haunt Me.” Joe Iconis is a quirky, intriguing theater songwriter whose songs make a statement that can be right on the mark but too often do not know when to end. An example of what he does best was Katrina Rose Dideriksen’s rendition of “The Actress.”

The last was the best, and most anticipated -- Tony Award winner, Maury Yeston (“Nine” and “Titanic”), a lively, entertaining narrator as well as creator of some of theater’s most haunting and memorable songs. While promising only “new stuff,” he did not mean only new music. He gave a different twist to one old favorite from “Nine,” “The Germans at the Spa,” which he narrated, sang and played all the characters and melodies himself. He demonstrated his inspiration by Louis Armstrong and brought Johnny Rodgers in to sing, “Danglin’,” a song sounding more Armstrong than Yeston. The show now in progress, “Club Moscow,” deals with post-Soviet Russia, and here Jill Abromavitz was a comic delight with one example from the show, “Malvina’s Song” followed by Mara Davi’s torchy, “Tell Me.” Rebecca Luker closed the show with, “New Words” from “In The Beginning.”

54 Below is roomy and bustling, designed by Tony Award-winning designer, William Lee Beatty. The result is an inviting salon in shades of claret red with decorative sconces, 144 seats of long and round tables, a bar on one side and leather banquettes along the back. The sight lines are good all around, theatrical lighting by award-winner Ken Billington sets an elegant aura and a sound system by Broadway’s Peter Hylenski is impressive. Chef André J. Marrero’s international food menu and beverages is still limited but the sampling was good and the prices right. On Tues., Wed., and Thurs. after 10:30, the room features live music, with the bonus of no cover charge or food and beverages minimum..

Cabaret is an uneasy genre. Clubs may gain a following, some popularity, and then often surprisingly close, like the revered Algonquin Hotel’s Oak Room earlier this year. Recently came the news of Feinstein’s leaving the posh Regency Hotel with the promise to open elsewhere. Yet cabaret has a tendency to revive itself and now it seems that the genre has not gasped its last breath.. 54 Below was created by theater producers Tom Viertel, Mark Routh, Richard Frankel, and Steven Baruch and the optimism surrounding the new club is supported by its spectacular first weeks. The outstanding talents from theater and cabaret who are booked through the year is an encouraging sign that this club may have the necessary determination and staying power to continue offering exciting, fresh entertainment and creating new audiences.

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