DAVID SABELLA’S “The Razzle Dazzle of Chicago” at 54 Below: A Review

The mood of David Sabella’s phenomenal one-man show, The Razzle Dazzle of Chicago, is established before the uber-talented singer even utters his first note.  The upbeat, joyous vibe at New York City’s 54 Below on Sunday, November 6th kicked off immediately, courtesy of Sabella’s trio of hardworking musicians: David Maiocco on piano (Maiocco is also Musical Director.), Mike Lunoe on percussion, and Sean Murphy on bass. The combined talents of the musicians perfectly captured the decadent, town-painting spirit of the musical which inspired this highly entertaining show.  David Sabella is an acclaimed vocalist, and it didn’t take long for him to share that gift with the audience.  This multi-hyphenate (singer-actor-teacher-author) can really hit those high notes. (Make that, “those REALLY high notes”!)  With the opening number, Sabella gave a generous sneak preview of his astonishing range via well-chosen lyrics like “Life keeps happening every day… Say ‘YES’!”.  In between the lyrics– and with incredible fluidity between story and song– he also told the audience how it all started: at his audition for Chicago back in 1995. In one of many delicious bits of trivia, Billy Porter and Sam Harris were also present at that audition. (SPOILER: David got the part…)  How do you top that intro? 

Well, Sabella does top it– over and over again throughout the show.  As mentioned before, the singer’s range is no less than astonishing.  Had Sabella simply offered the audience a set list of the well-known crowd-pleasers from Chicago like When You’re Good to Mama, All that Jazz, and All I Care About is Love, the evening would have been amazing enough, given his vocal talents.  But The Razzle Dazzle of Chicago is more than just an evening of song.  Far, far more.  Sabella is a gifted raconteur, giving the audience many fascinating behind-the-scenes stories from his many years with Chicago, which he aptly called “the Hamilton of the ’90’s”.  As an Award-winning figure in New York City showbiz, Sabella’s own personal stories– both in the spotlight and behind the flash of “razzle dazzle”– are just as fascinating. This is, after all, the actor for whom Kander and Ebb wrote a specific role for in The Visit on Broadway.  This is also the performer who wrote the book on cabaret– literally.  In a show full of many priceless anecdotes, one of the funniest moments in Sabella’s show was when the singer shared about the backstage drama at a performance attended by President Bill Clinton.  Without giving too much away, it involved one of Roxie Hart’s famous lines and a gun-shaped lighter in David’s dressing room… 

But let’s start at the very beginning: David Sabella originated the starring role of Mary Sunshine in the 1996 revival of Chicago.  His original outfit for the character became the prototype for all future costumes– and, before you can say “He had it coming!”, Sabella pulled out the actual costume for the audience to see! Many people may know that the 1996 Broadway production of Chicago holds the record as the longest-running American musical in Broadway history.  Some may even know that the show was the very first full-length Broadway musical to go to Las Vegas. But even hardcore theater aficionados probably do not know that Mary Sunshine was actually based on a real person: a criminally unsung hero named Julian Eltinge. Eltinge was a major star at the turn of the 19th century who was successful as both a performer and, later, an entrepreneur.  Sabella deserves major kudos for sharing a bit of Eltinge’s fascinating and inspiring life story– and he takes it one step further in his homage, giving the audience the song Those Come Hither Eyes written by Jerome Kern for the musical comedy Cousin Lucy.  The closing lyrics of this scorcher, sang with full operatic grandeur, say it all. Speaking of scorchers… A Tough Act to Follow (from the musical Curtains) segueing into Married (from Cabaret) became a love theme for Sabella finding real romance within the business he loved so much. The melancholy Life Is (from Zorba!) became the bittersweet background music while Sabella candidly shared the story about his long trajectory towards single fatherhood.  Next up was A Quiet Thing, from the 1965 musical Flora the Red Menace.  While that show’s star Liza Minnelli introduced the song on her 1974 album Live at The Winter Garten as a personal musical representation of her new fame, Sabella’s hauntingly touching version is a realization of having finally created his forever family.  Later on, when sharing his experience of an “empty nest syndrome” of sorts and his concurrent new journey of self-discovery, his experiences were expertly matched in the lyrics of Chicago’s My Own Best Friend. Perhaps no one else is more qualified to sing the lyrics, “If life is a game, I play it the best!” 

David Sabella has a brother named Ernie who is also a successful performer.  Ernie Sabella is perhaps best known for his role as Pumbaa from The Lion King franchise.  In a deliciously fascinating piece of showbiz lore, both brothers got to perform in Chicago at the same time, with Ernie stepping in as Roxie Hart’s ill-fated husband Amos.  Amos’ signature song was the cabaret favorite Mr. Cellophane.  David didn’t miss the opportunity to include that number in his show– for which he took on a completely different, comedic voice (Was he lovingly mimicking his brother’s persona?) Watching David sing and dance this eternally catchy tune was truly like watching a completely different performer; it was funny and fascinating and every bit as much of a crowd-pleaser as when was first heard in 1975

Special shoutouts were paid to many people throughout the evening (Naturally, Joel Grey, Bebe Neuwirth, and Ann Reinking were among them.), but truly royal accolades were given to Marcia Lewis, a professional mentor early on in Sabella’s career.  Among other things, she taught David how to survive an eight-day-a-week schedule. In homage to Lewis, Sabella performed Nobody Loves a Fairy When She’s 40, a true showbiz bauble just dying to be heard again. With lyrics like “For years I reigned in Fairy Dell, I waved my wand and waved it well; If I can’t do all I did I’m satisfied because, I’d sooner be a Has-Been that I would a Never Was!”, it’s a pure camp delight. Sung by Sabella, it must be heard to be believed. There was also some gentle name dropping (Melanie Griffith, anyone?) Present at 54 Below that night were PR guru Richard Hillman and performers Lorna Dallas, Jana Robbins, and Chicago alum Haley Swindal.  Sabella even recruited the audience for a special video birthday greeting to his friend, Lorna Luft, who regularly brings the house down at 54 Below. 

I won’t give away David Sabella’s encore for The Razzle Dazzle of Chicago...!  But I WILL say this: It is astonishing how much the performer packed into a show which was, amazingly, just over an hour.  Underneath the “razzle dazzle”– of which there was plenty– there was a foundation of history, humor, and heart,

Visit http://www.DavidSabella.com for future shows and much more.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s