By Stanford Friedman
Geneticists with a fondness for cabaret can have a field day at Café Carlyle as Alexa Ray Joel settles in for a ten show residency. At age 32, Ms. Joel is certainly her own woman. But, over the course of a whiplash inducing set of 17 standards and new songs, she also has no qualms about establishing herself as the fortunate daughter of Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley. In her original works, she shows signs of her dad’s gift for music composition, if not his way with a lyric, his vocal authority and his innate ability at the keyboard. Petite, and perfectly, effortlessly, fashionable, she was only half joking when she asked her mom, who was there for opening night, “How’s my posture?” Thus, to sequence the DNA of her performance is to discover an entertainer with her father’s ambitions and her mother’s priorities.
Ms. Joel promises a different set list every night, so your mileage will vary, but her first night’s choices were low on thematic cohesion and high on risk taking. Possessing a sultry silk slip of a voice, augmented with no small amount of reverb, she began with Marvin Gaye’s “Dancing in the Streets,” and the first of the evening’s numerous pleas to clap along with the music (even at times when the rhythms were essentially unclappable). The crowd responded, still she seemed unsure how to pace the piece. Next came two throw-away original ditties paying homage to the Carlyle, featuring lyrics like, “I’m in with the Carlyle, and I go where the Carlyle Goes.” That was followed with the first of three of the night’s songs by her father, the quite obscure “Why Should I Worry,” written by Mr. Joel for the Disney film, Oliver & Company.
Switching gears to an “angsty ballad,” Ms. Joel launched into a Nina Simone influenced rendition of “Don’t Let Me be Misunderstood,” beautifully wrought until her New York accent suddenly broke loose and her pronunciation devolved into “Don’t Let Me be Misundahstoid.” And why not follow that with an upbeat “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” dedicated to Ms. Brinkley. Then, another shift, this time into the best of the six original pieces she performed, the soulful “Song of Yesterday,” inspired by her namesake, Ray Charles.
Carmine Giglio provided fine support at the piano and synth, though was deprived of any solo moments to shine. When Ms. Joel took to the keyboards herself, the results were mixed. She struggled through one of Mr. Joel’s early masterpieces, “Summer, Highland Falls,” interrupting the killer lyrics (“How thoughtlessly we dissipate our energies/Perhaps we don’t fulfill each other’s fantasies”) by asking, “Am I doing it justice?” and proclaiming “It’s really hard to play.”
Ms. Joel must have some pretty interesting anecdotes to share, and where better than the intimate Carlyle to do so. But, we are left wanting. The bigger sin, however, is her inability to lose herself in the music for the sake of worrying about her audience. Repeatedly she would break the mood of a number with a “Do you know this one?” or an “Are you feeling it?” We do, and we no doubt eventually will, once Ms. Joel finds the confidence that is her birthright.
Alexa Ray Joel at Café Carlyle
Tuesday to Saturday at 8:45pm, through October 6. Weekday pricing begins at $75 per person / Bar Seating: $50 / Premium Seating: $125. Weekend pricing begins at $100 per person / Bar Seating: $150 / Premium Seating: $75. (The Carlyle kitchen is closed for renovation during the Fall 2018 Season.) Reservations by phone at 212.744.1600 or online via Ticketweb. Café Carlyle is located in The Carlyle, A Rosewood Hotel, 35 East 76th St. https://www.cafecarlylenewyork.com.