Birdland’s “Cast Party” heads to Town Hall



Host Caruso’s a swingin’ cat, a sly fox and one bad mother

Put on your Sunday best, lay down a modest cover charge and step through the doors of Birdland Jazz Club on any given Monday night — and it’s as if you’ve set the Wayback Machine for a lost era when well-dressed guys and gals sat at candlelit tables mere steps from household names who’d belt out standards between the amiable patter of a much-loved host.

That host is Jim Caruso — and that Monday night destination event for Broadway babies, journeyman jazz musicians, cabaret veterans and chummy regulars is “Jim Caruso’s Cast Party.” Now in its eighth year, the popular music-themed open mic is a sweet-natured yet occasionally catty throwback to the days of kitchen sink Vaudeville, when a beefy roster of performers would get just a few short minutes to wow you.

Most of the time during any given night’s three-plus hours, the folks who make it onto the Birdland stage deliver. But a few do mange to fall flat (usually because the material doesn’t suit the room or their interpretive abilities). When that happens, Caruso just winks and smiles and keeps shoveling coal into his runaway train — schmoozing with the band about an unrelated and often surreal topic, then brining up the next act.

A few months ago, shortly after Oprah gave away those cars to her audience, Caruso turned the notion of ego cloaked in generosity into a scathing running joke that didn’t wear out its welcome despite the fact that he trotted out subtle variations of the same basic zinger way into the wee hours. Even when he’s cutting you down, Caruso never strays too far from the “Cast Party” mission of lifting performers up and making sure the audience knows his shtick is all in the service of good, (mostly) clean cabaret fun. It’s that polite safety net that keeps audiences and performers coming back week after week. Despite being the frequent recipient of coveted air kisses from the likes of Liza and Chita and any number of special guests in attendance, Caruso retains a genuine aura of gee-gosh wonder which lets you know he’s as thrilled to be here as you are. It’s a thing to see.

Chelsea Now recently had a long, dishy phone conversation with Caruso. It began with a mutual pity party during which we was firmly established that both this intrepid cabaret reporter and his interview subject were basically decent, driven men who worked themselves like show ponies without the benefit of schemingly ambitious yet competent interns. While this humble scribe speculated he’d gladly deal with an “All About Eve” scenario in exchange for somebody who didn’t mind making copies, Caruso allowed himself to only pine momentarily for outside help. And girl, the boy clearly needs it. In addition to his hosting duties, Caruso does all of the PR outreach for “Cast Party” and promotes the “Broadway at Birdland” series. There he goes again, doing unto others what somebody should be doing unto him. Such altruism — it makes you sick!

Caruso’s pom poms and cabaret cheers will be out in full force on February 17. That’s when “Cast Party” moves to Town Hall for one night only — for an amped up evening that will have cabaret and Broadway fans worked up into a complete and total tizzy. Here’s a partial list of who’s on the bill: The legendary Liza Minnelli (whose 2008 show “Liza’s at the Palace” marked the Broadway debut of Caruso). Broadway icon Chita Rivera. Country music superstar Larry Gatlin. Lucie Arnaz. Marilyn Maye. Tony nominee Christopher Sieber. Tony nominee Sally Mayes. Jazz singer Hilary Kole. R&B tenor William Blake. Nightlife Award-winning jazz violinist Aaron Weinstein. Klea Blackhurst (star of the new IFC Comedy Series “The Onion News Network”). Composer Andrew Gerle — and Countess Luann de Lesseps (from “Housewives of New York City”).

Although the lineup is heavy on star power, Caruso says it won’t stray too far from the Birdland formula — then quickly adds, “I’m doing something with the Mark Stuart Dance Theatre. It’s going to be a full-on production number. We just added Hinton Battle, the Tony winner. Karen Ziemba, who won the Tony for “Contact,” is singing an Andrew Gerle song, because so much of what we do is about new composers.” Invoking his frequent collaborator, the great Billy Stritch, Caruso says, “Billy will be at the piano. Neither of us plan to talk about what we’re going to say, so our casual take on hosting will help keep the freshness and improv quality alive.”

Circling back around, Caruso adds, “I want to make it clear that Billy will be at the piano and I’ll have my ‘Cast Party Symphony Orchestra’ as we call it.” That means Billy Stritch (musical director), bass player Steve Doyle and drummer Daniel Glass.

Sprinkled throughout the starry night will be a few selections from Caruso’s new CD. “Jim Caruso: The Swing Set” is a 13-track collection (12 of which are first-time covers for the singer). Only one tune, “If I Only Had A Brain,” is from the Caruso repertoire. A parallel world away from the silly/stupid scarecrow version you know from “The Wizard of Oz,” this take is downbeat, with only the slightest lemon twist of hope. It’s a melancholy punch to the gut full of doomed “if only” moments punctuated by Warren Vaché’s sad coronet and slow licks from iconic superstar jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli. Fans know the man can pick at a furious pace — but here, like Caruso, his restraint packs an unexpected wallop.

Asked what’s up with this very unusual interpretation, Caruso traces its origins to an early failure: “I auditioned for the role of the Scarecrow once, but I didn’t get it. It went to a local hairdresser/makeup artist. So the anger and sadness of not getting that role stayed with me. I was telling Billy this pathetic story, and he said ‘you need to sing that song.’ And I said I couldn’t just stand there and sing it, so he started playing these hip, jazzy, contemplative chords. It refreshed the song for me and took it to a whole other place.”

Don’t get the wrong idea from that “Brain” origins anecdote. “The Swing Set” is full of upbeat, irony-free covers (including “Avalon” with Hillary Kole and Stritch; “Gotta Be This or That” with Michael Feinstein; and “The Doodlin’ Song” with Stephanie J. Block). Solo Caruso numbers include the snarky “I’m So Happy,” the not too saccharine sweet “Pick Yourself Up,” and an affectionately rendered “Manhattan.”

In addition to Vaché and Pizzarelli, other musicians lending their talents to the Caruso cause include Harry Allen (tenor saxophone), Tedd Firth (piano), Steve Doyle (bass), Jon Burr (bass), Warren Odes (drums), Kristy Norter (saxophones), Dave Trigg (trumpet) and Ross Konikoff (trumpet). Not familiar names? Google them and you’ll be sufficiently impressed.

High praise from the CD’s vocalist goes to Aaron Weinstein — the 24-year-old who served as musical director, played violin and created the musical arrangements (which have an inspired purity that’s both sparse and complex). Caruso says the concept for the CD has been percolating for quite some time. Crediting its success to a sound created by Weinstein, Caruso notes, “It’s all in the arrangements. Aaron is a genius. He has an incredible capacity to interpret these songs. All the musicians would come in and say how gorgeous the charts were. These are guys who are in the studio every day playing for someone. They see it all, and the fact that they were fainting at the arraignments was just beautiful.”

It’s at this point that Caruso goes back into that gee-wiz mode that shoots out of him like happy ectoplasm when he’s hosting “Cast Party.” He’s clearly tapping into that golden era of popular music, when collaboration came not in the form of a few distant studio musicians, but massive ensembles of backup singers, chorus boys and multi-member orchestras. Finding strength in numbers suits him just fine. “I’ve always been lucky to surround myself with brilliant talent,” says Caruso — who grew up watching variety shows and wanting to be an Osmond brother. He’s achieved that dream in a roundabout but very satisfying way, creating on the stage and off a Mormon-sized family of friends who became collaborators.