What’s this? Standup at the Cafe Carlyle? Strictly speaking, no, but you might think otherwise if you heard the waves of laughter rolling around the venerable night spot on Monday, when Christine Ebersole stepped up to the microphone. Ebersole’s chipper comic style is a breath of fresh air, particularly in this room bespeaking “privilege,” as she slyly put it, and her patter is vastly funnier than that of your average chanteuse. Even the figures in the colorful Bemelmans murals lining the walls seemed to disport themselves more cheerily in her casually ebullient presence.
She sang, too, of course, and quite beautifully. Ebersole’s strong, warm tone can sound affectionate or wry, powerfully dramatic or silken and sophisticated as needed. She called on all its colors in a free-roaming, eclectic program that was knit loosely together by dollops of autobiography retailed with easy flair. Her director, Scott Wittman, currently being feted as one of the authors of Broadway’s “Hairspray,” deserves credit for the evening’s bright polish, as does musical director Bette Sussman, who provided fine but unobtrusive support at the piano.
Comic numbers understandably figured prominently in the program, notably the tongue twister “No Bout Adoubt It” and a jaunty paean to the joys of the Garden State, “I Like Jersey Best.” (Quip of the evening: “From Hollywood to Maplewood — what a difference a leaf makes!”) And Ebersole brought down the house by impersonating — quite convincingly –a trumpet during a solo in the middle of a smoothly jazz-inflected performance of “My Ship.”
The tone of even the evening’s ballads was mostly upbeat, too, with a quietly glowing performance of “Bill,” dedicated to her husband of that name, standing out for its elegant phrasing. A rare melancholy note was struck with “The Man That Got Away,” on which Ebersole displayed the throaty power that was mostly held in check during a program that seemed intended to keep clouds at a safe distance.
That in itself was a generous gesture. With the anniversary of Sept. 11 around the corner, Ebersole let her repertoire comment on the events, and wisely avoided any overt references. But in turning “Lullaby of Broadway,” from “42nd Street” (for which Ebersole won a Tony, as Rosie O’Donnell so helpfully, and volubly, reminded us all on opening night), into a quietly growing anthem, Ebersole paid tribute to the spirit of the city and the power of musical art to inspire and console.
And her encore, also served up without commentary, was another anthem to the city, Cole Porter’s “I Happen to Like New York.” Ebersole then exited to especially warm applause, which was the audience’s way of saying “amen.”