|Jim Caruso. Photo credit:Ed Foster|
Jim Caruso’s Cast Party London
(Crazy Coqs 7th March 2015. Review by Kai Hoffman)
A New York institution, Jim Caruso’s Cast Party at Birdland is the mother of all open mic nights, welcoming everyone from Broadway stars to complete newbies across all the genres – a variety show for anyone who has the chutzpah to get up and perform. I have personally seen Japanese folk singers, tap dancers and opera cabaret at Cast Party, alongside Broadway, jazz and comedy stars, I was excited and intrigued to discover how this spectacular showcase event would translate across the pond and into the wonderful Crazy Coqs, the art deco cabaret and jazz venue which has, over the last few years, taken the London entertainment scene by storm. I visited on the second night of Cast Party London, but I hear the first night was just as fabulous!
Both Jim Caruso and his brilliant accompanist, Billy Stritch, have performed with the legendary Liza Minelli in London in the past, and also on their own solo shows. This was the very first time, however, that Cast Party has been brought to the London stage for two nights. The concept is simple: an open mic meeting place for the stars of the entertainment industry, theatre, television, music, comedy, variety, accordion-playing, tap-dancing, and kazoo-humming communities. Et cetera. All announced with witty repartee and cruise-ship-style showbiz flavour by masterful entertainment director Jim Caruso, and sandwiched in between some seriously good songs, accompanied by Billy Stritch, one of the finest, most entertaining piano players and singers on the planet. So who would be included in the London version on night two? As the lights dimmed, you could feel the anticipation in the room.
Opening the show with one of those fabulous swing tunes which gets your toes tapping and also makes you snicker with its quick-witted lyrics, Jim Caruso and Billy Stritch immediately set the bar high and got the audience on board – relaxed, smiling, and ready for an evening’s entertainment, before beginning the carefully-selected open mic section of the evening. First up was actor and West End star Giles Terera, soon to be opening at the Globe Theatre, who sang a spot-on swinging version of The Birth of the Blues. You’d have thought we were in New York, feeling the enthusiasm and responsive energy coming from this London audience. As the night progressed we were treated to an all-star lineup of performers, from the West End stage to Coronation Street, with Ronnie Scott’s and “other places” in between. Anne Reid MBE, of Coronation St and Last Tango in Halifax fame, sang a savvy version of Makin’ Whoopee, in wonderful contrast to Musical Comedy Awards headliner Jess Robinson, who sang two remarkably authentic impressions of Billie Holiday and Julie Andrews accompanied by pianist Kirsty Newton. Andrew Pepper livened up the crowd with his tune from Hairspray, and Trudi Camilleri sang the highest notes of the night with her opera cabaret song The Girl in 14G. To my complete surprise I was invited up by Jim Caruso to close the open mic section of the show, and sang my rhythm and blues version of Let the Good Times Roll, with the enthusiastic audience joining in. Caruso and Stritch then ended their first run of Cast Party London with the kind of swing tune that simply forces you to forget your troubles and just get happy- proving that Jim Caruso’s Cast Party is a totally unique experience both for the audience and performers – and is guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
There is also certainly something magical about this performance space at Crazy Coqs – maybe it’s the beautiful art deco decor, maybe it’s the highly professional, invisible waiting staff, maybe it’s the complementary lighting and the round, comforting shape of the room. There is a feeling of understated glamour which harks back to an era I have only experienced watching films; a kind of vintage splendour which this writer finds very appealing, and definitely enhanced the feeling of a great night out.
Part of the beauty of an open-mic (and the potentially tricky bit, too) is wondering who exactly is going to turn up to perform. The audience takes the risk of assuming that the show will be entertaining, whatever the outcome. And the hosts wait nervously, wondering how, exactly, the evening is going to pan out. Of course, with twelve years of weekly experience at Birdland, I suspect Jim Caruso, with some of the slickest commentary and quickest comebacks I’ve ever heard, has probably gotten over this fear – but heading to a completely different country to put on a show certainly brings a certain amount of risk. Having said that, if anyone could entice the best of London talent out for an evening of socialising, singing and merry-making, it would be Liza Minelli’s favourite men – Jim Caruso and Billy Stritch.
Guiding the show with witty repartee and a fabulously dry sense of humour which only a New Yorker can possess, Jim Caruso has hosted the weekly Cast Party show at the world-famous Birdland since 2003 – so, until these Kings of Showbiz come back to grace our shores, I guess we’ll have to head to New York City. Seeing Jim Caruso and Billy Stritch performing in person should be required watching for anyone in the live music and entertainment business – we need more totally polished, audience-focussed, feel-good shows – and these two are at the absolute top of their game. Come back to London soon, please!