Isaac Mizrahi Has Designs on Entertaining You
Yes he sings, yes he tells jokes, yes he offers amusing anecdotes and observations both pithy and poignant, as well as life lessons (virtually none of which have anything to do with fashion).
Through February 25
Isaac Mizrahi is back: he of the glistening pearls, the great hair, the oversized glasses, the even more oversized silk flower, and the still more larger-than-life personality. Yes he sings, yes he tells jokes, yes he offers amusing anecdotes and observations both pithy and poignant, as well as life lessons from his personal experiences (virtually none of which have anything to do with fashion). Mostly, more than anything, he holds court.
Some headliners who stand on the stage at the Cafe Carlyle are primarily singers; others are entertainers. Mr. Mizrahi is both, but even more he is our host, the guy throwing the party. As such, he’s somewhat less vulgar than Trimalchio but also way more visible than Gatsby. He makes us feel welcome in his own private, intimate space. It’s a big, flashy affair, albeit with a warm heart at the center, and yes, his is, essentially, the only voice we hear.
Mr. Mizrahi further envelopes us in that fantasy with his opening number, “I’ll Plant My Own Tree,” a terrific but seldom heard slice of self-affirmation of the sort that were so prevalent in the 1960s, by the same Andre and Dory Previn who also gave us, “You’re Gonna Hear From Me.” Mr. Mizrahi briefly mentions that it’s from the songbook of “Helen Lawson.” I know I wasn’t the only one in the room who was aware that the name referred to the Judy Garland stand-in in “Valley of the Dolls,” the epically trashy movie hit of 1967, based on the even-trashier novel — and in fact, Garland herself sang it on television.
By referencing Helen Lawson, Mr. Mizrahi extended the fantasy that we were all characters in that story, people in that universe; it’s another means of letting us into his world.
Mr. Mizrahi may not have the full-on chops to compete with other canonical Carlyle crooners like Bobby Short and Steve Tyrell, but he has a gift for finding worthy songs that aren’t currently overdone in New York clubs. Such was his second number, a mashup of the Harry Nilsson hit “Everybody’s Talkin’” with the Sesame Street anthem “Sing a Song.”
Referring to his pianist and musical director Ben Waltzer as “the Doc Severinsen of the Jews” and to himself as “the Noel Coward of the Jews,” he proceeded into a bittersweet reading of the latter’s “Mad About the Boy.” The program also included two contemporary-ish pop songs of the sort that one doesn’t expect to hear in the Carlyle, Billie Eilish’s touching “Everything I Wanted” and Grace Jones’s funky “Pull Up to the Bumper,” and an original polemic about the cultural and political situation of the current moment, “Leery, Weary, and Wary.”
As an entertainer and party host, Mr. Mizrahi seems to have a double-edged mission, which is to make everybody in the room feel comfortable while at the same time making his musicians as uncomfortable as he can. The excellent ensemble consists of trumpeters Benny Benack III and Bruce Harris, bassist Neal Miner, trap drummer Joe Strasser, and percussionist Joe Perri; the band is nothing if not as symmetrical as any of Mr. Mizrahi’s well-known creations in that it includes not only two trumpeters and two drummers but two guys named Ben and two guys named Joe.
In what has become a Mizrahi tradition, he treated us to his latest set of topical rhymes to “You’re the Top,” such as, “I’m a Chinese spy/Floating in the sky/Go pop.” From there he immediately and effectively transitioned to his most heartfelt song from his funniest, a passionate reading of “Alfie” in tribute to the late Burt Bacharach.
He concluded with two modern vaudeville-inspired show tunes, the tongue-twister “Liza With a Z” and Henry Mancini’s “You and Me.” The latter is famously a duet in “Victor/Victoria,” and at first it seemed odd to me that he was recasting it as a solo. Soon, though, I realized that it’s still a twosome and that it’s all of us who are singing with him.