Thomas Burns Scully
We’re pretty spoiled in New York for entertainment. When I think back to where I grew up, with it’s lack of professional theatre, its incredibly limited music scene, and movie theatres that only had four movies at a time, it makes me weep for my newfound entertainment privilege. In New York you can always find something to do, and nowhere is this more true than in the cabaret scene. Go for a walk in Manhattan and you will find yourself tripping over piano bars, juke joints, jazz clubs and all manner of musical delights. Last night I was sent out to ‘Don’t Tell Mama’, one of Hell’s Kitchen’s premiere cabaret clubs. I was there for a new hybrid show, ‘Pompie’s Place’… here’s what I thought.
‘Pompie’s Place’ invites you to entertain conjecture of a time when the blues was king. It describes itself as a pop-up blues club, a show that can set up wherever, and become its own club within a club. The framing device is that the place you have come to is a Prohibition-era joint called ‘Pompie’s Place’, named for the show’s host, Arthur Pomposello. He comes on stage, introduces his band and his singers, and generally comperes the evening. His singers, Lezlie Harrison and Hilary Gardne come in and sing classic blues and jazz standards with the band. Within the world established for the show there are a few, mostly subtextual, stories playing out in front of you. There’s some, largely unspoken, tension between the two singers, there are hints at their relationship to Pompie, and their difficult working lives. It’s all intended to create an atmosphere, to give you a genuine speakeasy good-time. But, does it work? Well, rhetorical question, I’m about to tell you.
‘Pompie’s Place’ can be very neatly divided in to what does and doesn’t work. The music is top-notch. Honestly some of the best blues I’ve ever heard. Musical arranger and piano player Ehud Asherie has the skill, focus and quiet bravura of a legitimate master. You could picture this guy playing with any of the greats. Same goes for the rest of the band, because most of them have. Ken Peplowski (reeds), apart from being a musical wizard in his own right, has played with Benny Goodman. Jackie Williams (drums) has a resume that would make you weep, and plays the skins as easily as he breathes. Regular bassist David Wong was out last night, but his replacement (whose name was never given) was superlative. Singers Lezlie Harrison and Hilary Gardne are sultry, smooth, sensational and whole lot of other adjectives beginning with s. Musically, the show was faultless. Absolutely faultless. Blues the like of which turns your blood in to whisky.
It’s strange then that the framing conceits, which are meant to distinguish the show, are so redundant. Put bluntly, Pompie is the least important thing about ‘Pompie’s Place’. As the show’s host he is capable, but unremarkable. His comedy shtick is pedestrian and a little forced. He seems to be responsible for the device of the twenties blues club, but establishes this idea in the clunkiest way possible. His introductions of his singers and band are unmemorable, and the set-ups he has devised for the tunes are basically unnecessary. We know all these songs, they’re blues standards, that’s what that means. The job of a host is like that of poetry, to make the unfamiliar familiar and the familiar unfamiliar. Pompie does neither.
Interestingly enough, though, the band are endlessly entertaining as personalities. Particularly Ehud Asherie. When they’re finally given license to chat and banter, they sound like they’re straight out of ‘Boardwalk Empire’. Asherie’s off-the-cuff jokes and genuine love of what does shines like ice in a gin glass. Ken Peplowski’s response to a heckle suggesting he was too young to have worked with Goodman was categorical, yet soft and easily charming. Funny to think that the musicians’ banter did more to evoke the period than any of Pompie’s gags about bootleg liquor or the like.
And that’s what there is to know about ‘Pompie’s Place’. It is a fantastic exhibition of world-class blues music, encircled by a strange premise that is never quite followed through on. That said, none of this is difficult or obtrusive enough to ruin your evening, or distract you from the transportive power of the music. If anything it’s too weak to make any kind of impact on you at all, and it gets drowned out by everything else that happens on stage. But it does make you wonder what could be if the premise was played with properly. Perhaps the employment of a writer is in order to develop the concept Pomposello seems to have in mind. It could be very exciting: a music, come dinner theatre, come murder mystery, come stand-up event… the possibilities go on. As it is now, it is an excellent cabaret music show. As an immersive experience, well, it isn’t immersive. Go for the music (no, really, go for the music), but leave for the gags.
‘Pompie’s Place’ just finished its run at ‘Don’t Tell Mama’. For information on upcoming shows consult one of the following.
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded in Time Out NY and the New York Times, and his writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
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