Feinstein’s/54 Below positively sparkled as its guests waited in eager anticipation for the New York Pops Underground Cabaret to begin. The sounds of clinking glasses and forks on plates rose to the burnished gold ceiling, mingling with The PopsEd Alumni Ensemble, POPSED (https://newyorkpops.org/popsed) “Allstars” jazz combo, which provided bright pre-show music, the Beatles’ “And I Love Her” among others.
After an impressive fundraising effort which only served to further demonstrate the love and support of The New York Pops’ patrons, charismatic director Steven Reineke welcomed the audience to this “reunion” by introducing its star attraction: Tony, Drama Desk and Grammy nominated singer and actor Max von Essen.
Von Essen took to the stage, and then proceeded to take the audience on an exuberant evening of songs, mostly from the Great American Songbook. Singing from this collection of music, he declared, “must be what it feels like to fly.” “There won’t be any Hamilton medleys; in fact, unless the composer is dead, you’re probably not going to hear it tonight,” von Essen quipped, eyes and wit sparkling.
Von Essen began his set with a rousing and fun “I Could Have Danced All Night,” followed by a tender “Some Enchanted Evening,” meaningfully catching the eyes of his audience, savoring the connections as he sang.
“I’m so nervous and excited, I think I’m gonna cry nine times tonight!” he exclaimed as he ventured into an “Everything Old is New Again.” He continued with an a cappella opening of “Fly Me to the Moon,” and the lush, warm interlude from the trio led by the incomparable Billy Stritch was like butter.
A hugely popular “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” inspired the audience to sing along, and von Essen’s smart suit could barely contain him as he danced and jumped enthusiastically to the music. This same energy prevailed in “Show Me,” as well as in a boisterous “Shimmy Like They Do in Paree,” brimming with a mouthful of lyrics while Stritch sang along.
Von Essen did sing a couple of songs from a living composer, one Andrew Lloyd Webber. He relayed the story of going on for Ricky Martin in Evita, where the curtain had to be held so that all the box office refunds could be processed; he won the sympathy of every ear in the house on that retelling. He also declared that although auditions for both the parts of Raul and the title character of The Phantom of the Opera did not yield successful results for the Broadway production, he did get to play said Phantom in Love Never Dies, which was a perfect segue to “Till I Hear You Sing.” It seemed the evening was specifically shaped to present this “power ballad” as the 11 o’clock number, and von Essen truly pulled out his most formal, rich and dramatic voice for it, earning him spontaneous applause in the middle of the song and even a few standing ovations afterward. As for the other Webber song, well, I did not think I’d ever want to hear this song again, in or out of its Evita context; yet von Essen put Magaldi completely aside and sang a most stunningly beautiful and exquisite version of “On This Night of a Thousand Stars” as one could ever imagine hearing. His sublime and subtle tenor notes were completely glorious, and this song became the superlative number of the evening for this listener.
After a delightful “The Trolley Song,” von Essen rounded out the set with a medley of Gershwin tunes from the Broadway musical An American in Paris, inspiring more singing along from the audience and more spontaneous applause. After a standing ovation he returned to the stage, declaring “I should make you all do an encore!” and finished the glorious evening with Lerner and Loewe’s “Almost Like Being in Love.”
“In love” is what this audience is with von Essen; music emanates from every fiber of this man’s being, and it is a total joy to accompany him on his musical journey. The only disappointment to the evening was that it had to come to an end. Von Essen is a total gem.
The New York Pops Underground Cabaret featuring Max von Essen (October 04, 2021)
Feinstein’s/54 Below, 254 West 54th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-765-7677
Running time: 60 minutes without an intermission