It’s impossible to replicate the unassuming, seemingly effortless singing style of Fred Astaire, whose vocals were generally seen as a byproduct of his dancing a necessary accompaniment to those painstakingly conceived steps in time. Cabaret legend Steve Ross can’t dance — don’t ask him — but he has an unassuming, effortless-seeming singing style of his own. His new act, “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” spins the Astaire songs into a magic web, his 10 fingers proving a suitable substitute for Fred’s two feet.
Astaire came along, out of Nebraska, at just the right time to personally benefit from the great American Songbook. As his career was about to take off, he befriended a similarly one-of-a-kind young composer named Gershwin. Their 1924 musical, “Lady Be Good,” immediately and permanently established both Fred and George as top musical comedy talents.
Astaire’s increasing stardom quickly attracted projects and songs from Gershwin’s worthy peers: Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern. Frank Sinatra and Al Jolson might have been stronger singers, but they never had composers of this caliber writing songs to order.
Ross weaves together a string of 32 songs in 70 minutes, all but three of them from Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Kern or Arthur Schwartz. Some are combined in medleys, others stand alone. Many prompt anecdotes or observations, centering on Astaire and touching on the songwriters, the dance partners (especially sister Adele, initially thought to be the star of the act) and others.
But it’s in the singing that Ross gets us. He has a gentle vocal style, not unlike that of Astaire, and he sings from the heart. Fred, of course, had other things to attend to; once he had properly introduced the lyric, it was time to start dancing. Ross has plenty of songs to cram into the act, and he provides all the music at the keyboard (with able assistance from Brian Cassier on bass).
But Ross also has carte blanche to stop the almost dizzying hit parade and immerse himself in some of these golden songs. “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” and “They All Laughed” are dazzling, boosted by the performer’s pianistics. “Cheek to Cheek,” mixed with “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” is breathtakingly good.
Best of all, perhaps, is Schwartz and Dietz’s “Dancing in the Dark.” This is a complex song, musically as well as lyrically; as Ross enters the introspective interlude, he seems to deconstruct the words and feeling, building to a grand and emotionally involving climax.
Ross has been performing the songs of Astaire, and those of Gershwin, Porter, et al., for more than 30 years now; his obvious devotion to and love of the material is apparent. Steve Ross singing “Night and Day,” framed by the oak-paneled wall of the famed Algonquin: What could be better, or more special, than that?