Not so long ago, New York hotel bars were almost like supper clubs without the supper, a classic mix of martinis and live music, part Bobby Short, part Fabulous Baker Boys. For the price of a drink or two or three, a pianist, harpist or jazz trio would entertain you before you headed upstairs or back home.
Times change, fashions change, recessions happen. Cocktail entertainment still thrives at hotels if you look hard enough. Consider Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle, where the Loston Harris Trio and pianist Chris Gillespie tease standards most evenings. Or the Waldorf’s Peacock Alley, brightened by a pianist most nights (too bad the fabled Cole Porter piano in the front lobby is silent). Or check out the lively lobby at the Ace, where DJs and live rock bands reinvent the genre almost nightly.
But sometimes the best place to hear great hotel cabaret is away from the hotel and the drinks and that annoying conversation you can’t tune out at the next table.
Enter Jimmy Roberts, a pianist, singer, raconteur, composer (he wrote the off-Broadway hit show I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change) and cabaret performer sublime. An alumnus of the lounges at the St. Regis and the erstwhile Drake, where we first heard him, Roberts moved on from the hotel scene around the time I Love You clicked. Those who recall his wit, originality and superb musicianship await his rare performances around town. Three are coming up November 4 and 11 and December 10 and are worth catching if you’re in the city.
His new 45-minute show draws on his myriad talents as a singer, pianist, songwriter, music lover and even actor. “Given the words and moods of the music, I become other people when I play,” he told us during a recent chat.
Besides dipping into the cabaret realms of Noel Coward, George Gershwin and Cole Porter, he plays his own compositions, old and new. He has lots to choose from, including the musicals The Thing about Men, Pets and A . . . My Name is Alice and the children’s musical The Velveteen Rabbit.
Among his specialties are his classical/contemporary mash-ups – the Beatles (“I Get High with a Little Help from My Friends”) paired with Vivaldi (the Four Seasons) or Stephen Sondheim (“Send in the Clowns”) teamed with Johann Sebastian Bach (“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desire”). After hearing a tape of the latter, Sondheim responded with a note saying, “Bach is as good company as anyone can ask for.”
The blended pieces draw on Roberts’ training as a classical musician (he’s a graduate of Manhattan School of Music), allowing him to unite two diverse realms he loves. “I like finding similarities, a common ground, in the two worlds,” he says.
I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change ran for 12 years off-Broadway, second only in off-Broadway longevity to The Fantasticks. The show has been performed in more than 25 countries and translated into nearly as many languages including Mandarin, Korean and at long last, French. Je T’aime, Tu Es Parfait . . . Change opens in Paris in January. Why did it take so long to reach Paris? “I thought it might be anti-American hostility, but no,” he says. “Apparently there’s not a tradition of American-style musical theater there. Le Miz, which is set in France, only ran six months there. It ran in England for years.”
Jimmy Roberts performs at the New York Society of Ethical Culture as part of the Afterglow cabaret series, 2 West 64th St. and Central Park West, 4th Floor on November 4 at 9 pm. (Please arrive at 8:45.) Free admission. He shares the stage with inspirational singer Julia Wade as part of Watchfire Music’s Listening Room Series at Shetler Studios and Theaters, 244 West 54th Street, Penthouse 2, 12th Floor on November 11 at 8 pm. Reservations required: 212 244-0426. Admission $15. He performs at the 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Ave. at 92nd Street, the Gallery, on December 10 at 2 pm. Free admission. Call 212-415-5500. For additional information, e-mail Jimmy Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org.