By Stanford Friedman
Mario Cantone blasts his way onto the Café Carlyle stage this week and, as an actor, singer and comic, proves himself to be a triple threat. Just not in a good way. In a frantic one-hour set that is both under-rehearsed and overblown, he throws everything he can think of against the café’s renowned mural-covered walls to see what sticks. There is the occasional victory of a zinger that hits home and a tune spritely delivered, but missed chances and miscues are the order of the night.
Perhaps it was nerves. Being on that stage was “scary as all shit” he would confess toward the end of his opening night. But Cantone’s technique for dealing with that fear was to deliver his goods fast, loud and angry. This not only took a toll on the comic timing that has served him well in the past, but created a discordant mood in the warm Carlyle space that was just this side of mean-spirited.
Mostly, Cantone seemed plain mad about sexual identity. Not any one sexual identity in particular, but to him “cis” is too reminiscent of “sissy,” “pansexual” brings to mind Peter Pan and don’t even get him started on “queer” and “binary.” He would occasionally fall into a brusque New Jersey hetero thug routine for unexplained reasons, but not before failing to draw laughs from a bit about Caitlyn Jenner, who Cantone would only tolerate referring to as Bruce Jenner.
The evening otherwise consisted of a mix of personal rants, impersonations, songs and song parodies. Things started off promisingly enough as he bounded on stage and launched into a nicely arranged version of “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die,” backed by Music Director Paul Masse on piano, Craig Magnano on guitar and Clayton Craddock on drums. A quick pivot from that involved a less than gut-busting routine about grocery shopping at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, and a mini-tirade about Will Smith and his Oscars shenanigans.
Other familiar numbers included a fun rendition of the Connie Francis hit, “Looking for Love” and a take on the Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil classic, “Make Your Own Kind of Music,” where he did exactly that by twice breaking out of the number, having forgotten the lyrics. When it comes to impersonations, Cantone draws almost exclusively from the canon of camp, which is to say Peggy Lee, Bette Davis, Mae West, Liza Minnelli and Judy Garland, along with passing shots at Joan Crawford, Lauren Bacall and Kathleen Turner. As Lee, he twisted his lips and sang a cruel, albeit hilarious, parody of “Is That All There Is?” involving an oxygen tank running low as well as Santa being burned in a fire. As West, he usurped a few of her funniest one-liners (“I feel like a million tonight, but one at a time.”).
His most convincing impersonations are his long-polished Liza and Judy. As the former, he offered up a version of “You Ain’t Finished Yet” preceded by a questionable linguistic gag concerning a waiter named Cesar, a Cesar salad, and a seizure. In what shoulda coulda been a fine finale, as Garland, he surrendered a stirring, “The Man That Got Away,” but chose to follow that up with, of all things, a Bruce Springsteen impersonation. He dead-on channeled The Boss’s facial mannerisms, but not his sensitivities, in rendering an off-color song about Pam, his “non-stick girl.” It failed to butter up the audience for the actual finale, a softly conjured, “The Last Time I’ll Fall in Love.”
Mario Cantone at Café Carlyle.
With Music Director Paul Masse on piano, Craig Magnano on guitar and Clayton Craddock on drums.
Tuesday to Saturday at 8:45pm, through April 16. Reservations can be made online via Tock. Café Carlyle is located in The Carlyle, A Rosewood Hotel (35 East 76th Street, at Madison Avenue). https://www.rosewoodhotels.com/en/the-carlyle-new-york/dining/cafe-carlyle.