Celia Berk: Manhattan Serenade

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Celia Berk

Manhattan Serenade

(Gramercy Nightingale)

June 6, 2016

Reviewed by John Hoglund for Cabaret Scenes

Celia-Berk-Cabaret-Scenes-Magazine_212After last year’s auspicious solo debut and a trunkload of honors, Celia Berk has a lot to live up to. For her new album with an orchestra, Manhattan Serenade, she has chosen a classy, thematic concep that shines a light on worthy songs that might be an endangered species—based on Manhattan life. This clever, well-chosen set list offers selections about wanderlust, show business, love and making it in the Big Apple where all roads seemingly lead to stardom. While not an original concept, the material is so good, it doesn’t matter.

From her splashy opener, “Manhattan Hometown” (David Heneker), to Rodgers and Hart’s wistful “A Tree in the Park,” Berk spins words and music with an artful intelligence that suggests exceptional taste. In between are lushly arranged tunes that enhance her vocals. Confident on terrific and wacky uptempo tunes, like Irving Berlin’s “Manhattan Madness,” Berk is comfortable here. She is animated and lively on such upbeat songs. When she allows this side of her persona to show, she reveals a joie de vivre that recalls good-time gals from the past where style usurped substance in the name of entertainment.

When it comes to digging deeper, as on the Kurt Weill/Langston Hughes “Lonely House,” a quiet, blues analogy unfolds as she tells a languid tale of emptiness with a haunting piano-only arrangement that is perfection. This is greatly helped through the use of her rich lower register which she uses sparingly, making this cut one of the best. Her voice is a smooth, medium-dark crooning alto with dark textures that is effective. At times, on some cuts, she recalls a less-jazzy Carol Sloane. A moody “The Romance of a Lifetime” (Kurt Weill/Sam Coslow) fused with Rupert Holmes’ story song “The People That You Never Get to Love” which tells a tale of love lost and regret that is a well-phrased standout. More of this would be welcome in future endeavors. Berk is a good storyteller, hnce the real success of this album. She proves she’s not afraid to grow and take chances. The results are another winning notch in her climb up the cabaret ladder.

Not enough can be said about the exceptional arrangements by the gifted Alex Rybeck throughout, who also provides fine piano work on most of the tracks. From day one, Berk has surrounded herself with top-notch professionals. It has paid off in spades on this impressive project. The lush orchestra consists of Vince Giordano & the Nighthawks Combo Orchestra, Jered Egan (bass), Michele  Fox (violin), Dan Gross (percussion), Sean Harkness (guitar,) Matt Lepak (flute), Tom Malone (trombone), John Miller (bass), Mark Phaneuf (tenor sax), Dave Rogers (trumpet),  Peter Sachon (cello), Roger Squitero (percussion), Mark Thrasher (tenor sax), Krystof Witek (lead violin), Sara Zun (violin), Jeffrey Klitz (piano). Backup vocals are provided by “The Rialtos”: Joshua Lance Dixon, Jeff Harnar and Kristoffer Lowe.

John Hoglund

For over 30 years, John Hoglund has been a respected entertainment writer covering cabaret, jazz, theater and recordings. His writings have appeared in numerous outlets including the Bistro Bits column for Back Stage. John moderated seminars and forums for the International Cabaret Conference At Yale. He produced many celebrity fundraisers in NYC including one of the first benefits after 9/11: “HeartSong:The Heroes' Concert” at The Bottom Line featuring 36 major stars. He co-produced “HeartSong2: The Heroes' Concert” for Katrina victims at Symphony Space and “Miracle On 35th Street” with a star-studded lineup. Other fund raising efforts include the first benefits for Broadway Cares and God's Love, We Deliver. John served on the Board of Directors of MAC for 12 years. He is well known for championing new and rising talents.