3. Review of I’M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF (May 7, 2013)
Mark Nadler’s I’M A STRANGER HERE MYSELF, at the York Theatre, looks like a cabaret act, sounds like a cabaret act, and feels like a cabaret act—in fact, it used to be a cabaret act. But it’s been expanded and developed into a two-act, hour and 45 minute revue that--despite some drawbacks--has much to commend it, even for those, like me, who don’t frequent cabarets. These were known as “night clubs” to Nadler during his youth in Iowa, where, of all places, he grew up gay and Jewish. The show is subtitled “MUSIK FROM THE WEIMAR AND BEYOND”: while a major intent seems to be to highlight the cabaret music of Germany’s Weimar Republic, especially songs by Jews, including those about homosexuality (like the famous “Lavender Song “by Mischa Spoliansky (Arno Billing) and Kurt Schwabach), the selections and the accompanying narrative also cover twenty years after the Weimar period ended where we learn about the influence on American culture of the Jewish immigrants who fled the Holocaust, with references to many who had nothing at all to do with the world of entertainment, like Albert Einstein.
Mr. Nadler is happy to share his extensive research into the cabaret world of the 1920s, and after, including a very personal story that wends its way through the narrative portions tying the many selections together in a more or less coherent whole. The audience is shown a clip from the credit scroll of an old movie during which an announcer’s voice implores us not to reveal the movie’s ending, and we are likewise asked not to reveal the conclusion of Mr. Nadler’s own story, which is worth waiting to discover, whatever else you think of the music or the performance.
Friends who frequent cabaret are very fond of Mark Nadler’s work, but this was my first exposure to him and my feelings are mixed. He is clearly an affable and gifted pianist and singer, but, for my taste, he tends to overdramatize his numbers and, for theatrical effect, to rely too often at key moments on a powerful vibrato as he pounds the ivories, which sometimes come off as hokey. He does very well in bringing new colors to that great Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht number, “Bilbao Song,” but not every song is as instantly memorable; some seem too dustily redolent of their era, with their historical interest overshadowing their melodic appeal. Songs you may be familiar with, like Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz’s “By Myself,” and Weill and Ira Gershwin’s “My Ship,” share the stage with less familiar work, at least to me, by writers such as the prolific Frederick Hollander. The show’s occasional tendency to digress beyond its immediate framework allows “La Bohème,” by the great French actor-singer Charles Aznavour, who is of Armenian descent, to occupy considerable stage time. Mr. Nadler, by the way, carries off the impressive feat during the evening of singing in English, German, and French.
Mr. Nadler dresses nattily in a dark, pin-striped suit, with a vest and wide silk tie. He is accompanied by two female musicians (Franca Vercelloni on accordion and Jessica Tyler Wright on violin), dressed in black, who move about the stage expressively under David Schweizer’s effective direction. James Morgan’s set, nicely lit by Mary Jo Donglinger, resembles a cabaret lounge on a thirties cruise ship, with porthole windows set in the maroon walls. Adding considerable visual interest are the projections by Justin West; these show video clips and period stills combined with special effects, such as the illusion of curtains closing off one sequence from another.
On the whole, Mr. Nadler often seems to be working too hard, his comic bits can feel forced, and the show's overall effect borders too frequently on a musical history lesson, sort of a cabaret lecture-demonstration. The information provided is often fascinating, and the theme of the outsider (suggested in the title and in a song lyric repeated throughout the show) is clearly stated, but, until the final reveal of Mr. Nadler’s personal relation to the material, I was not especially moved. Still, I plan not to be a stranger the next time I have the opportunity to see Mark Nadler perform.