By Stanford Friedman
Before Birdland nested on 44th Street, before The Iridium ever opened its doors, there was Don’t Tell Mama. With a name borrowed from a song in the musical, Cabaret, and a 33 year history rich in the pleasures and pitfalls of actual cabaret, this midtown landmark, situated in the center of Restaurant Row, is doubling down on its old-timey-ness with Pompie’s Place, an occasional pop-up supper club featuring a three-course dinner and an eleven-song showcase of smoky blues.
Pompie is Arthur Pomposello who, for 18 years, was the host and booker for the Oak Room at the Algonquin. He is the producer of this show and, without aid of a director, serves as the evening’s emcee, introducing the talent while offering meditations on heart break and night life. He reminded me a bit of Jack Palance in his later years. There is, at first, an undercurrent of cool, then some wonder at his lack of irony in using phrases like “that’s hot stuff,” and his referring to blues singers as “women in pain.” By the end of the night we are ready to do without him as he goes on about “never sinking in a river of grief.”
Fortunately, the three singers he brings to the stage are all hot stuff, indeed. Lezlie Harrison is both visually stunning and a vocal powerhouse. In her two solos, she soars through WC Handy’s Saint Louis Blues, then turns due west for a rollicking version of Lieber & Stoller’s Kansas City. Hilary Gardner is no less enjoyable with a disciplined, honey voice and a clear affection for Billie Holiday. She makes the most of the wonderful Rodgers & Hart song, 10 Cents a Dance, with its classic internal rhyme, “Sometimes I think/ I’ve found my hero/but it’s a queer romance.” Brianna Thomas is not quite as polished as her co-stars and is saddled with a number called I Keep My Stove in Good Condition, with much sexual innuendo swirling around oven and biscuit imagery. She redeems herself as part of a lovely three-part harmony in Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo. The trio end the evening with Arlen & Mercer’s Blues in the Night, because in a place called Don’t Tell Mama, how could anyone resist singing, “My Mama done tol’ me.”
The ladies are backed by a band that offers an interesting mix of old timers and young bucks. Drummer Jackie Williams has played with many of the greats and I could have done with more solos than he was given. Alternatively, Ken Peplowski, on sax and clarinet, had many solos and killed it every time, nearly stealing the show. Leading the band was keyboardist Ehud Asherie. Seated at a piano that has seen better years, Asherie proved to be a fine stylist, but not always a great accompanist. Playing behind Harrison and Gardner on a number called After You’ve Gone, the three didn’t quite connect.
Food has never been the reason to come to Mama’s and, even in supper club mode, that is still the case. The show’s promo material promises a Cajun meal, the menu itself reads “New American Cuisine,” but the reality is neither of the above. Starters include a choice of salad or a soupy bowl of chili, served with a moist, warm piece of cornbread (but get the salad). My entrée was a sad handful of butternut squash ravioli in a cream sauce so watery that it made me envious of my neighboring table’s choice of baby back ribs. There’s also a pan roasted Atlantic salmon. For dessert, the friendly waitstaff offers lemon meringue pie or a Rocky Road brownie (well, half a Rocky Road brownie). A two-drink minimum is required (The blues are not for the sober, after all.) on top of the $65 show and dinner ticket.
Ehud Asherie, music director and piano; Jackie Williams, drums; Ken Peplowski, reeds; David Wong, bass; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet. Don’t Tell Mama, 343 W 46th St., 866-811-4111, http://www.pompiesplace.com, Sunday May 10 (Mother’s Day) at 1pm, Monday May 11 at 7pm, and Thursday May 28 at 7pm. Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes.