Alexis Fishman in Songs From Below 54th Street | Seymour Centre

Alexis Fishman is a geographical enigma. Born in Sydney, she graduated from WAAPA. And now lives in New York, because the irresistibly glamourous appeal of remaining a starving performer finally became too much for her. It was a dream she’d harboured since the age of 15 and her experiences so far have yielded her new cabaret, Songs From Below 54th Street, which she’s brought home, following a sold out debut season at the 54 Below Club; the former Studio 54 where celebrity coke-sniffers galore once gathered.

For those who haven’t sniffed too much coke and still have memories, Alexis Fishman might be known to you. Der Gelbe Stern (her brilliant Weimar cabaret from a couple of years ago). Dusty (her first professional outing, which garnered her a Helpmann nomination). Shout. Kiss of the Spiderwoman. And more. The ADF even asked her to entertain the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Her New York debut was at The New York Musical Theatre Festival, in the lead role of Amber Murray in the Australian musical The Hatpin. This show grew out of that small explosion of reputability and, for it, Alexis was named ‘Next Broadway Sensation’ by the very same festival only last year, trumping two-hundred others. It saw light of day, or dim light of evening, publicly, in March, so it comes to us fresh.

It includes a surprising, thoughtful and almost incongruous selection of songs: there’s an unlikely mashup (as Fishman says, probably a world first) of Streisand of Winehouse, for example. There’s a tune by David Yazbek and a medley from her Der Gelbe Stern, which is well worth reprising.

She has a sensitive trio behind her (Chris King, piano; Oliver Simpson, bass; Jamie Castrisos, drums) and the room seemed well-stocked with relatives and friends, which enhanced the cosiness of The Sound Lounge. The first couple of songs tested Fishman’s vocal chords a little. Perhaps she was nervous. Maybe not properly warmed up. Possibly both. Whatever the case, it sounded a little too hard-edged, was prone to the odd crack and slightly variable pitch. But this soon righted to the point where the big numbers had plenty of punch; ballads communicated with a warmth and tenderness, proving the versatility of her voice. In other words, she hasn’t just got a gift, she knows how to use it.

Fishman began with Here I Am, Yazbek’s song from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (the Sydney production of which is auditioning almost as I write, I believe) which, in context, pretty much sums up, I imagine, her thrill, landing at JFK, for the first time ever. Zoot alors, indeed! Presumably, even on arrival, she still harboured self-doubt and, as well as carry-on, probably still had baggage to collect from the carousel, including the well-meaning, protective kind one’s closest relatives tend to pack. As I said, though, given the condition of the voice, it was an audacious song with which to kick off. Had everything been in order, it would’ve been an ideal selection, what with it’s bouncy, infectious Latin rhythm and barrier-breaking introduction between strangers. The fact the musical from which it derives has won 11 Tonys doesn’t hurt, either. I’ve seen YouTube footage of the NYC show and Fishman nailed it, so her vocal uncertainty was, presumably, anomalous.

Andrew Lippa’s (he also wrote the score for The Addams Family) Out of the Blue, from The Wild Party, suffered something of the same fate. Despite her best attempts to bend it like Beckham might, if he sang, there were semitonal discrepancies: just enough to bother, rather than bewitch the ear. But, again, a thoughtful selection, especially cheek-to-cheek with Here I Am: both refer to distance between people and, of course, at this stage of the game, performer and audience are still getting to know each other. ‘Sometimes I don’t know you, you’re like someone else; but that’s alright, I’m a stranger here myself.’

You’ll Never Know was written by Mack Gordon (lyrics) and Harry Warren and is notable for a number of reasons. It was based on a poem written by a young war bride and first turned up in the 1943 movie Hello, Frisco, Hello, in which it was sung by Alice Faye. It was deemed good enough to be worthy of the Oscar for Best Original Song, beating eight others to the punch. Sinatra, Vera Lynn, Rosemary Clooney and others recorded it before Streisand, but this is one for hardcore Barbra aficionados as it was the very first song she ever recorded, in 1955, when she was just 13. Fishman blends this superbly and seamlessly into a medley with Amy Winehouse’s (I Heard) Love Is Blind, a somewhat franker, more mischievous version of longing and romance; believe it, or not. She makes the incongruous congruous, while making no attempt to emulate either icon, preferring to angle for her own iconic status. I think I actually prefer Fishman as a ballad singer, rather than a bold and brassy belter: she seems to have a different voice reserved for each, to the point where it could almost be two different people. “Darling, I’ so blue without you, I think about you, the live long day” is some distance from the revengeful torment of “I couldn’t resist him, his eyes were like yours; his hair was exactly the shade of brown; he’s just not as tall, but I couldn’t tell, it was dark and I was lying down”, yet the two are reconciled, as we know both to be authentic. Fishman’s vocal is sweet, tender, natural, open, honest and unaffected, yet it could only be hers. In the case of the Streisand, it’s ingenuous; in the case of Winehouse, bitterly ironic.

Another captivating programmatic decision by Fishman is Annie Ross’ 1952 setting of Wardell Gray’s tenor sax solo (trust me, you’ll know the tune), Twisted, a satire on psychoanalysis. At last count, Ross was still doing it, or something, at The Metropolitan Room, West 22nd Street, every Tuesday night, but after the writer’s rendition, I’d be looking to Fishman, notwithstanding the laudable Joni version.

AF’s Der Gelbe Stern (The Yellow Star) medley was a highlight, but I must admit, I prefer this in its original, full-blown context. Fishman inhabs the character of Erika (or vice-versa) darling of the prewar Berlin nightclub scene. Der Gelbe Stern is a must-see work of minor, or not so minor, genius, yet it’s inclusion here might also be construed as something of a prop, pointing to a gap in the current show, which begs to be filled with more disarming, personal detail about her NY pilgrimage: after all, it’s been her dream to make it there (and if you can, you can make it anywhere) since teenagehood, so why not populate the show with more of her experiences to date? Yes, there’s the odd aside, but not enough connective tissue to really make this cabaret (even though it’s been dubbed as Alexis Fishman in concert, there’s no getting away from the format) a living, breathing, fully-functioning thing, as yet. More intimacy, caring, sharing and disclosure is required to draw us nearer still. I’m sure she has the stories to tell. So tell them, already!

There was the sassy Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets), written by Adler and Ross for the ’55 musical play, Damn Yankees. The phrase (if not the character, who was the devil’s assistant) was reputedly inspired by Lola Montez, the infamous, Irish ‘Spanish dancer’. Fishman does coy to rival the best of ’em, even Eartha Kitt, who’s also well-known for the song.

The Friedrich Hollaender-Frank Loesser composition I’ve Been in Love Before is interpolated too. Made immortal (if not as immortal as Falling In Love Again, by the same, ahead of his time, composer) by Marlene Dietrich, Fishman revives the tune poignantly; one suspects, in her case, this isn’t mere stagecraft, but by dint of the authenticity of heritage she brings to it as well, insofar as her antecedents being holocaust survivors. Surely one of the best of world-weary love songs, it captures the emotional exhaustion one imagines the Jewish literati, anticipating disappearance day after day, almost certainly endured.

The mood pendulum swings back again with Mischa Spoliansky’s playful, provocative and pointed commentary on the arbitrariness of gender roles, in Masculine & Feminine, this followed by another Hollaender signature song, quintessentially European in flavour, I Don’t Know Who I Belong To. “One man has hands that are tender, one man’s incredibly strong”, but to which will she surrender? Fishman seems quite in her element with these songs, showing a genuine depth of feeling, understanding and interpretive instinct and her vocal style becomes warm, imbued with a sense of the tremulous and tragic, as well as a vulnerability conflated with resilience. Can one rally get all this from the way in which a few songs, or even a single song, is sung? I believe so. This is the true art of cabaret and Fishman paints with fine and coarser brushes, as determined by the material.

She’s not Jake Shimabukuro, but her solo spot, with vocal and ukulele, is a sweet treat, even if it is a big jump from the aching sadness of Friedrich Hollaender (who became Fred Hollander when he followed in Dietrich’s footsteps to Hollywood) to Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s If I Only Had a Brain (from The Wizard of Oz, in case you come from another planet or are indefensibly young), melded seamlessly with All I Need Is The Girl, by Jule Styne  and Stephen Sondheim, who wrote it for Gypsy. It’s a measure of her self-assurance that Fishman would stand down the band for a number or two; not so many cabaret performers would have the chutzpah.

June Christy’s Something Cool (written by Billy Barnes) was also delivered superbly, grabbing onto the cloying humidity, that uncomfortable closeness, that begs relief. Of course, that closeness is in need of another kind; something, or someone cool and refreshing, of mind, body and spirit. It’s a tale of lost love, fading charms, longing and loneliness so very well-told, lyrically and melodically. Again, Fishman seems to achieve a singular affinity.

What Did I Have That I Don’t Have, from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, by Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner, surely must stand as one of the best-ever songs about the crisis of confidence by which one is almost inevitably afflicted after the death of a relationship: that unhappy admixture of sadness, grief, anger, confusion and God only knows what else that can feel and be like quicksand. Fishman locks onto the torment of realising ‘he likes the girl I left behind me”.

Howard Dietz wrote the lyric (constant collaborator Arthur Schwartz the music) for Rhode Island is Famous For You and Fishman had the inspired notion of turning a song Blossom Dearie made her own into an interactive North American geography lesson, complete with a map she prepared earlier. As it happened, the volunteer from the audience turned out to be her cousin, who wasn’t too shabby in pinning the tail on the the donkey. Well, blue-tacking copper onto Arizona, peaches onto Georgia and lobsters onto Maine, which is just as it should be. And let’s not forget gold comes from Nevada and divorces also do. It’s a fun, cute and catchy number and Fishman made the most of it, with a very entertaining segment well worth hanging onto.

Running might’ve been written specifically for Cait Doyle by Adam Gwon but, like Dearie, Fishaman has adeptly taken possession of it with her rendition. It’s a day in the life of a struggling artist in a knowing song. “Some days really suck and others are disasters.”

Gee But It’s Good To Be Here goes all the way back to Ethel Merman (and the ’56 musical Happy Hunting), so it’s gotta be big,  bold, brassy and swaggering. Fishman pulls this off too, in a medley with Anthony Newley’s Once in a Lifetime which (notwithstanding his inimitable style), just quietly, she sings a whole lot better, reminding us why it remains one of the worthiest, most uplifting songs in the popular repertoire. If ever the phrase “they don’t write ’em like this anymore” applied, it’s to maculate conceptions like this. Fishman does it understated justice.

The lady closed with Sentimental Journey, Doris Day’s first number one. And this was something of a sentimental journey, especially if you’re sentimental, nostalgic, about musicals and the good ol’ days. Mind you, some of the chosen showed, at least musically, we might still be enjoying them. Especially when the likes of Alexis Fishman take to the stage. While this wasn’t a triumphant return, it was solid and a representative sampling, for the most part, of just how much she can do. And how well.

The details: Songs From Below 54th Street played the Sound Lounge, Seymour Centre on July 17-18.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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