She sings, we swoon: Marilyn Maye, one of the first performers to grace the Birdland Theater stage. Photo: Kevin Alvey
The renowned music mecca offers a new venue for theater
BY SCOTT STIFFLER
What avian entity builds two nests, never migrates and soars like a singer’s highest note — but has no feathers?
It’s Birdland, the beloved West 44th St. music mecca that audiences flock to for jazz, cabaret, and Broadway entertainment that’s anything but chicken feed.
“Birdland is a cultural treasure, and is known around the world,” noted the namesake host of “Jim Caruso’s Cast Party,” the popular Monday night open mic, where household names, unsung greats, and eager amateurs all get a chance to shine in the spotlight — and become part of the venue’s storied history.
Seven nights a week, Caruso said, “People just come in the door, not knowing what will be on the stage, but knowing whatever is at Birdland has got to be pretty good.”
It happens like clockwork at “Cast Party,” where curious tourists and loyal regulars alike, Caruso noted, “are sitting next to superstars. It’s the elbow-rubbing capital of New York City, and I think that’s what makes a great party — the mix of performers, and the people who love them.”
As for what makes Birdland great, that question would have elicited a very different answer before July 17, when the 150-seat room (which has presented the likes of Chita Rivera, Diana Krall, Dave Brubeck, and Tito Puente) welcomed a hatchling. Now, the Midtown destination is known as Birdland Jazz Club & Birdland Theater.
“We call it the Birdland Theater,” Caruso said, of the 100-seat downstairs space, “because we want to be able to book all kinds of entertainment, from cabaret to jazz to comedy to burlesque. Whatever floats our boat at the moment, and whatever we think might appeal to our audiences.”
Joining Caruso as the others in that “we” equation is “Ryan Paternite, who “has been booking the jazz at Birdland forever. But he also really appreciates what I’ve brought in. He’s not holding his nose for the Broadway and showbiz crew. He just loves it, as does the owner [Gianni Valenti], whose heart is with his jazz friends — but he’s almost as obsessed with Marilyn Maye and Miss Coco Peru. It’s nice to have a boss who is so respectful, for the talent. That’s not always the case, but it is at Birdland.”
Indeed, it was the success of the Caruso-curated Monday night “Broadway at Birdland” series (veteran performers and creators, and names currently on The Great White Way), which inspired the creation of Birdland Theater.
“It’s brand new,” Caruso said. “It has that new nightclub smell, which means clean carpet, clean upholstery. It’s a very slick black box of a space, not overly designed — no chandeliers, and not a lot of artwork on the walls. We all agreed the focus is what’s happening on stage. We’re interested in showcasing the best talent, and to be a breeding ground for up and coming projects, and creative endeavors.”
Among the upcoming talent at Birdland is James Barbour (who had a three-year stint on Broadway, as the lead in “The Phantom of the Opera”), presenting his annual holiday concert on Dec. 14/15, and Santino Fontana (Dec. 17), who’s been cast in the Dustin Hoffman role, when the musical adaptation of “Tootsie” comes to Broadway next year. Twice a month (Dec. 18 is the next one), comedian extraordinaire Susie Mosher hosts the anything-goes variety show “The Lineup,” which, Caruso proudly pointed out, has been called “the crazy stepsister of ‘Cast Party.’ It’s nuts,” he said of the show, whose typically atypical lineup might include a theremin player and a professional whistler.
Your “Cast Party” host also delivers some bankable holiday fare. Highly recommended is “A Swinging Birdland Christmas” (Dec. 22-25), whose trio is comprised of ludicrously likable Caruso, the preternaturally gifted arranger/pianist/performer Billy Stritch, and beyond-brassy comedian/singer Klea Blackhurst.
“We’re adding new material,” Caruso promised. “We found a great song that was recorded by Jane Lynch on her ‘A Swingin’ Little Christmas!’ album.” There will undoubtedly be a medley, and banter reminiscent of the TV variety shows (think Sonny & Cher, Andy Williams) that inform this annual happening. In addition, a fresh look is in the cards: “I have a new jacket, and Billy has a new jacket, and I believe Klea has a new dress. And this is really important,” Caruso wryly asserted, “because that’s what people come to look at.”
New Year’s Eve revelers also have an option at Birdland. Upstairs, The Birdland Big Band plays all night, while downstairs, the Caruso-hosted “A Swing Swang Swingin’ New Year’s Eve” has shows at 8 and 11. “The cast alone, absolutely kills me,” Caruso said, of his handpicked roster, which includes “Lesli Margherita, who is funny, and dirty, and all the things you want for New Year’s Eve.”
The late show comes with hats, horns, and balloons — and when it’s time to go, don’t worry about the maddening crowd. Even though Birdland is located not much more than a good stone’s throw from the world’s most congested countdown to midnight, “There are big barricades between that, and the block we’re on,” Caruso noted. “You can get out of there easily, but be close enough to feel all the craziness and insanity of a Times Square New Year’s Eve. It’s the best deal in town.”
And there’s one more thing to sweeten the deal: Hot off the buzz from his Christmas show jacket reveal, Caruso deadpanned, “I’ll be there in a new tuxedo. You’re welcome, America.”
For a calendar of events and reservations, visit birdlandjazz.com or call 212-581-3080.