First Nighter: Eric Comstock, Gabrielle Stravelli Light Up Cabaret

Cabaret is alive and not quite yet reduced to gasping for breath in New York City. One of the most recent promising signs is the opening on Second Avenue of Café Noctambulo with piano man Eric Comstock cutting the ribbon on the small, square and just about perfect room at the back of Pangea, a restaurant where the food is always first-rate.

Calling Comstock -- who faces the room in jacket and tie (below 14th Street, no less) from the keyboard -- a piano man is slightly unfair. He's much more than that. He's one of the thinning cadre around town who make it their business to know every song ever written -- or at least give the impression they do.

Comstock gives the impression, all right, and so much so that I'm not convinced he doesn't truly know every song ever written. He's certainly got everything from The Great American Songbook down pat, and I don't just mean the tunes from the fattest chapters. I mean songs from the less-well-thumbed chapters, too.

I'm also not talking about a fellow who simply segues blithely from song to song in hopes auditors will eventually drop a dollar in the bowl on top of the piano. (There is no bowl on the top of his piano.) I mean that Comstock has a story to accompany everything he chooses to sing. You want to hear something about Frank Sinatra in the recording studio. Comstock's got it. (Eat your heart out, Jonathan Schwartz.) You want to know things about his songwriting chums Lew Spence or Murray Grand, he's got the skinny.

He slips these anecdotes in between the selections and sometimes in between the lyrics--and does it with a sly smile on his square-jawed face. He may not know the name of the movie in which Nat Cole introduced this song or that, but he knows it was Cole "who made about 20 movies" who introduced it. And on and on like that.

I stayed for two sets (he plays on Tuesday nights and will for the next month or more, at least) during which he intoned old standards like the Jimmy Van Heusen-Sammy Cahn "All the Way" and several Harry Warren numbers, as well as Todd Rundgren's "I Saw the Light." But he also brought to our attention "Bittersweet," a sumptuous song that Roger Schore wrote with Billy Strayhorn that you don't hear every day of the week. He included "Along the Way," a stunning ballad that Jule Styne and Robert Merrill wrote for Vic Damone to croon in the 1965 Dangerous Christmas Of Red Riding Hood, starring Liza Minnelli.

Comstock sings with an easy lilt and that ready smile,and he affably acts whatever needs to be acted. His arrangements, certainly the breaks, amble confidently along jazz paths. I sometimes think he's momentarily lost track of pitch, but that's a too infrequent lapse to be a bother.

What's more significant is that he's found the ideal setting for what he does when he's in this frame of mind--and not appearing with wife Barbara Fasano doing the latest version of their sophisticated programs. That's not the time or opportunity for the kind of amusing exploration he can do on his own with audiences wanting to join him on the expedition.

I've heard Comstock for some time now and can say I've never heard him better--or revered him more for his giving free rein to everything he loves doing. Anyone interested in songs and singers had best hurry on down to Café Noctambulo.


Another big cabaret plus these days is Gabrielle Stravelli, who's just completed a run at the Metropolitan Room and will be back right soon if the bookers there have any sense.

I've been a fan for several years and yet was taken aback during her set for reasons I'll explain. To begin with, Stravelli is warbling now in the tradition of great mid-20th century icons like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. That's how irresistibly polished she's become.

Listening to her, you're listening to top-drawer renditions of long-established standards. She opened this most recent set -- and chose to close with -- the Alec Wilder-Morty Palitz-Bill Engvick "While We're Young," undoubtedly intending to establish it a personal anthem about why she's doing what she's doing so beautifully.

She also paid amiable attention to the Oscar Hammerstein II-Richard Rodgers "Happy Talk," Cole Porter's "Dream Dancing With You," the Johnny Mercer-Matt Malneck "Goody Goody" as well as the Mercer-Harold Arlen "Old Black Magic." She delivered them with lively, thoughtful, invigorating respect and occasionally embellished them with gymnastic scatting.

There's plenty to be said, too, for her trio -- Joshua Richman at the piano, Pat O'Leary on bass and Eric Halvorson on drums. They matched the tasty good taste Stravelli exhibited throughout.

For the performances, Stravelli wore an extremely appealing lace dress. I mention this because the frock surprised me. From my previous ganders at her, I'd never taken her for the lace-dress type.

The wardrobe change became clear as the numbers unfolded. Unless my memory fails me, Stravelli isn't quite the same chanteuse she was when I first saw her. What I remember is a singer with more of an edge to her. Rather than conjuring images of Fitzgerald, for instance, she was transmitting tiny hints of performers like Nina Simone and Janis Joplin.

Perhaps because she's now directed by Marilyn Maye, who makes her own appearances a swell-egant, upbeat party, the anger that, it seems to me, used to infuse Stravelli's singing from time to time (she's Sicilian, she still reminds you) in something like "Goody Goody" is now replaced by smiling gratification.

When someone as good and as triumphant as Stravelli currently is -- let's hope she's primed for national appreciation -- it's foolish to complain. So I'm just saying.