By Sarah Downs
In the late 1970’s Stephen Kitsakos arrived in New York city, bright eyed and bushy tailed, to pursue a career in music. Working at the famed Marie’s Crisis piano bar in the heart of Greenwich Village, he found his people – young hopefuls ready to take on the world, open to adventure and in need of community. In the small oasis of creativity that was the New York arts scene, Kitsakos rubbed shoulders with all sort of characters.
Meanwhile, composer Martin Hennessy was pursuing the same dream, 60 blocks uptown, as an accompanist and vocal coach at Lincoln Center. In The Pleasing Recollection, Kitsakos and Hennessy have joined forces to compose a musical memoir of Kitsakos’s early experience of the city. Weaving a range of musical genres together, leading from his classical background, Hennessy has come up with a unique and rather magical genre of his own. Landing in the space between art song and smoky supper club, The Pleasing Recollection is a classic song cycle performed as cabaret. It’s Winterreise meets la vie Bohème, in a Rococo setting.
Into the glow of Feinstein’s/54Below’s signature violet and gold stage, musical director and pianist extraordinaire Bénédicte Jourdois takes the stage and proceeds to cast a musical spell as she effortlessly produces lush sound (she knows a fine way to treat a Steinway) in a lengthy prelude that says – here is something different; here is something new. In its cascading arpeggios you hear hints of Ravel and Satie, slowly morphing into familiar song structure. Into this musical landscape saunters Michael Kelly, as if chancing on a piano on his nightly stroll. The scene is set for reminiscence.
Kelly eases into the material, establishing the twin characters of the old man looking back at his life and the young man living it. Nostalgia opens the window to memory – New York City in the 70’s, with its grime and crime, financially a wreck – and yet full of color. Kitsakos bumping into Leonard Bernstein, meeting Charles Ludlam, the West Village with its men in chaps and executives surreptitiously seeking out Jersey boy toys — you see them in the light before you, in shades of green and gold for a day in the country or passion pink (of course) for Marie’s Crisis.
Kelly has full command of the material, from every wink of a shoulder to a dramatic high note, revealing a tenor-like sweetness at the top of this range, bolstered by the strength of his baritone center. With a simple turning of his back, a stroll around a chair to sit down again, or leaning on the piano, Kelly utilizes the whole space, refreshing the page with each intentional gesture.
The songs flow one into the other, continuing through and under the interstitial monologues as the young man treats us to one amazing anecdote after another. (The story of his bumping into Leonard Bernstein is hysterical!) Kelly moves nimbly through the far-reaching musical styles. A song can start like a Renoir and end up like jazz, and Kelly rolls with it. His voice is so spot on, with gorgeous breath control.
In the old man’s reverie we have caught a glimpse of vintage New York once again, in all its tattered splendor and promise, but alas all dreams must end. Kelly puts on his jacket and walks back into the night. As luck would have it, however, you can see the show on Fire Island in May. The Pleasing Recollection will be part of the Fire Island Pines/Art Project on May 29th. Mark the date in your calendar!