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Pinch Hit 

Le Chat Noir, New Orleans' very own cabaret theater, tries gallantly to deserve the "cabaret" in its name, as well as the "theater." The room is on the biggish size, for a cabaret. It's on the smallish size for a theater.

But, in fact, it's quite wonderful as a combo of both. And, after all, the first burst of cabaret entertainment -- a little before the turn of the last century in Paris -- was very much about both. The original Chat Noir, which was the premiere "artist's cabaret," featured singers and dancers and musicians (no less a musician than Erik Satie at the piano!). But it also presented such artsy curiosities as shadow puppet shows and it published its own literary journal.

But back to our Chat Noir. Recently, I went there to see the acclaimed New York City singer Karen Mason, who was scheduled to do a two-week engagement. And I did see her, albeit briefly.

The audience member who shared a table with me was another cabaret artiste from New York City named Anna Bergman. She had flown down because she had a private Christmas engagement here. Anna Bergman performs around the United States and abroad, and she has stacks of laudatory reviews (as I found out by Googling her). She has also performed at Le Chat Noir and simply loves the room. To her experienced eyes, the club gets four stars as a place to perform in.

Anyway, Anna was at Le Chat Noir to catch her friend Karen's act. But when Karen appeared onstage, it was simply to apologize to her fans for taking the night off. She had -- as anyone could easily hear -- some sort of bug in her voice box. So she introduced her "accompanist" Billy Stritch, who would fill in as the featured performer.

The curious thing was that all this crisscrossing of entertainers gave the evening a gypsy glow -- a warmhearted sort of bohemian chic. And somehow this mix of glamour and earthiness is precisely what is attractive about a cabaret.

To cut to the chase: Billy Stritch was a hit. And there's a reason I put "accompanist" in quotation marks. Stritch has a solid little bio of his own. Among other accomplishments, he served as musical director for Liza Minnelli's 1999 Broadway show, Minnelli on Minnelli, and he played the role of Oscar, the rehearsal piano player, in the 2001 Broadway revival of 42nd Street.

Stritch's cabaret show was straight-ahead playin' and singin'. Wearing a suit and tie, he sat at the baby grand and entertained us, as though we were gathered in his living room at a party. He seemed to be enjoying himself. At one point, he was snapping the fingers of his right hand and carrying the melody on the piano with his left.

The songs tended to be standards from the good old days of Tin Pan Alley and from the Broadway and Hollywood musical canon. Which is not to say the songs were always instantly recognizable to the non-cognoscenti. One, for instance, rhapsodized about the uplifting qualities of a good shoe shine and ran changes on the kind of shines you got from different locales, like pool halls and train stations.

Talking about this and that between numbers, Stritch told us he hailed from a small town in Texas called Sugarland, that he got his pop-musical education from Carol Burnett, then went on to receive his post-graduate pop degree from Sonny and Cher. Both of these educational experiences came by way of the family TV. Young Billy picked out the hit parade by ear on a piano, until, at last -- for his 10th birthday -- his grandmother gave him a Gershwin songbook. When the leaving was good, he left Texas and headed for The Big Apple, where he worked "in all those night clubs, that aren't there," as he put it.

Much of the fun of Stritch's cabaret turn came from his no-nonsense, on-to-the-next-one style. He played with poise and not only sang well, but engagingly put the songs across. He was so taken up with entertaining us, in fact, he had no time for those hallowed bits of business we have come to expect. In short, Stritch was too busy playing the piano to recline upon it. I think we may be confident that Diva Karen Mason will be back for more engagements. Also, I hope to see my table-mate, Anna Bergman, onstage at Le Chat Noir. But, given the bouncy and infectious show that Billy Stritch pulled off at a moment's notice, I look forward to a return engagement by this "accompanist" as well.

click to enlarge Pianist Billy Stritch went from accompanist to star solo performer when Karen Mason had to cancel one of her cabaret shows at Le Chat Noir -- and provided a stellar mix of Tin Pan Alley, Hollywood and Broadway standards.
  • Pianist Billy Stritch went from accompanist to star solo performer when Karen Mason had to cancel one of her cabaret shows at Le Chat Noir -- and provided a stellar mix of Tin Pan Alley, Hollywood and Broadway standards.


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