Chris Barrett at the FireBird Café

Nov 1 to Dec 28, Wednesdays through Saturdays from 9pm.

365 West 46th Street, at 9th Avenue

$15 minimum - No cover.

After a production meeting on Ninth Avenue Wednesday evening, I wandered over to the FireBird to catch a late set by Chris Barrett, whose opening in the new venue I regrettably missed last weekend.

An adjunct to the FireBird Restaurant, the FireBird Café offers a variety of light cuisine from La Vielle Russie - Pelmini, Zakushka, a stout Selidky (Matjes herring with creme fraiche and golden caviar... $13). It also offers something that old Russia did not have. Like much of old New York, the Russian Tea Room is absent from New York nights. All the more reason to visit J. William Holt's Romanov fantasy of a St. Petersburgh townhouse. Anastasia may not be there to greet you, but Chris Barrett is there to entertain you.

And Mr. Barrett is an artist you must hear live. Many of the recorded songs suffer (especially in the early CD 'Closer than Ever') from overproduction, faulty engineering, and the lack of that ineffable push that Mr. Barrett gets from a live audience, however small. This artist, more than many others, feeds off our appreciation and gives it back tenfold.

Mr. Barrett had just returned from appearing with the Milwaukee Symphony in some evenings of Noel Coward. To be expected in one back from such an engagement, he exhibited a great control of both nuance and diction in "You're the Top" and again later with "Hundreds Of Girls" and even in a very classy "You Fascinate Me So" (so easily glossed-over by lesser talents who succumb to Cy Coleman's jazz roots).

This is a performer with an incredible historical grasp of the repertoire, deftly picking his way among some very disparate styles. A moody "Joanna" or evocative "My Heart Stood Still" led an hour later to a crisp, straightforward "Blue Moon", then on to very classic "Hello Young Lovers" or "Oh What A Beautiful Morning". Yet what seems like repertoire-surfing often has an underlying method to its madness.

He has a certain penchant for stringing together medleys, ravishing his audience without letup. One can only say: Let us breathe, Mr. Barrett! One such assault strung together "My Foolish Heart", "Love Is A Melody", and then "All The Things You Are". You sometimes wonder at his choices; Grouping by composer is often done, but Mr. Barrett may group songs by an emotional undercurrent which he alone perceives and then transmits to us in a subliminal way. This is seduction by a master.

And this master is someone who has grown in stature immeasurably in the last seven years, now creating magic out of what were by comparison parlor tricks in 1994. Amidst such a never ending flow of magic it is hard to single out instances; yet there were indelible moments:

In one of these, Buddy Barnes' "Welcome Back Again," we saw Barrett the dramatist, in the way his eyes lit up on the line "Welcome to my dreams" (You are their answer). Was it a happy trick of the lights? Or did he actually become in that moment a moonstruck lover, having regained his sanity only to happily throw it all away again. Once more he surprised us by deftly turning the often subdued musical ending into something brief but big, evocative of a Chopin Ballade. I had to wonder, will it really be this magical when I hear it next? It is the question which brings us back again and again to Cabaret. And, to Chris Barrett.

Another such moment: "Once Upon A Time" (Very long ago) - It was heartbreaking. And yet, refreshing, in that through some alchemy of performance art it was ultimately uplifting. This was great artistry; raising an American popular standard to the level of art song..something he was to do yet one more time that evening, in another devastating Barrett grouping: Starting with "My Heart Stood Still", continuing with "Here's To You" and finishing then with the 70's warhorse "Old Friend," - certainly one of the most lasting gifts Joe Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival gave us. He brought an almost unbearable intensity to the refrain (Love is rare, Life is strange...) Taking a chance, he subtly escalated the bittersweet emotion right to the very end. We were transported back to a stage show setting - but from a production that never was; one in which the words became at once both prophetic and self-fulfilling. This went way beyond Cabaret performance, lifting all to the level of the concert hall.

As the hour grew late, the vocalist K.T. Sullivan arrived. She listened as Mr. Barrett finished a heart warming rendition of Bart Howard's "On The First Warm Day", then, after some banter about the composer, she launched into a wistful rendition of Howard's "Walk-Up." (Buddy Barnes was the fortunate Ms. Sullivan's first pianist in New York City, and he it was who introduced her to the Bart Howard songbook). Singing from her seat without a mike, her elegant and crystalline soprano floated on a buoyant pallette of sound improvised by Mr. Barrett, who adjusted artfully to accompanying long-distance. It was sheer magic in surround-sound.

Another cabaret performer (the New York booster John Luke) also arrived late, but left early - to get to work at his own venue. He sat there utterly riveted for twenty minutes, watching Mr. Barrett with an eagle eye and focused ear as if to draw-in all he could in the little time allowed. While leaving, he apologized to the bemused Mr. Barrett by announcing to all: "A half-hour with Chris Barrett is worth more than three hours with anyone else!" The audience cheered their agreement; to which this listener adds: Amen!

You can hear Chris Barrett at the FireBird through December 28th.

Louis Lopardi