Bistro Bits : Illusions

RECALLING A CONTINENTAL-STYLE CABARET long associated with elegant bo"tes of another era, international chanteuse Yanna Avis packed them into the intimate FireBird Cafe last week, in a show directed by Barry Kleinbort. Here she sang of the romance and simple charm of another era. While not the definitive cabaret act or the most accessible performer, Yanna Avis is, in many ways, to cabaret what Cuisinart is to blenders. She is unique, exciting, and razor sharp. Her delivery is always sensitive, hushed, and warm. She also has fun with her audience and, in spite of her sophisticated persona and gazelle-like elegance, doesn't take herself too seriously.

Avis was particularly effective singing a fiery Argentinean tango called "Fumado Espero," a smoking romp about waiting for a lover, and a quiet reading of Hoagy Carmichael's "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." However, this thrush was at her best singing songs from her native Paris, such as Piaf's haunting "La Vie en Rose" and "Paris Canaille" with brio. Another French song, "Parlez-Moi d'Amour," about a gigolo, gave the chanteuse another fine moment in this memorable hour. Closing with a perfect reading of the sexy "Illusions" proved to be the perfect cap for this beautiful lady who needs to do more local cabaret.

SPEAKING OF CONTINENTAL CABARET, I finally caught up with Sigrid Sunstedt and her Dietrich show, "Illusions," at Don't Tell Mama (reviewed in this column by Roy Sander, March 8, 1997). I would like to add my two cents. This lovely lady offers a passionate and sincere tribute to Marlene Dietrich. While it wasn't perfect and some stronger direction might be called for in spots, I must say that Dietrich's songs and the anecdotes about her life are handled with care and affection. Sunstedt is at Mama's March 15, 22, and 29, at 7 pm.

SINGER FRANK ZAGOTTIS IS A WELCOME addition to the roster up at Don't Tell Mama. I caught one of his recent shows and was very impressed with his warm, expressive tenor. His "Back 2 Basics," directed by Bill Daugherty, takes a journey back through time, revealing a lot about his life through some well-chosen songs. Among these are a beautiful "I Will Not Wait for You" and a riveting ode to his 15-year-old daughter, "Father of Girls" (written by Mike Douglas) in medley with Barry Manilow's "I Am Your Child" that was moving and wrought with restrained emotion, speaking volumes.

Zagottis has a beautiful voice and a warm personality that are sure to gain him considerable attention. He takes his audience on an autobiographical journey. While some of his monologue was just a bit wordy, Zagottis created some magical vocal moments. His gusty vocal inflections carried the show, giving each song a sense of purpose. He's back at Mama's March 20 and 27, at 7 pm.

1998 MAC AWARD NOMINEE BOBBY BELFRY IS at Eighty Eight's in "Every Good Boy Does Fine"--a show directed by Scott Barnes and with musical director Christopher Marlowe and his band plus two backup singers. I've long felt that this is one of our town's most talented vocalists. He approaches his songs with an honesty and passion that have made him a winner who's built a strong following.

In "Fine," Belfry sings several of his own songs. He emotes with such youthful enthusiasm that he shines throughout the set. While his clear pop-tenor voice has become his calling card, in this set he chooses to make more use of his chest tones with considerable effect--as on an original pop-rock tuner "Is Someone Out There?" He uses a similar technique re-inventing "What About Today?" which is languid and dark. His best moments come with a sensitive "Tell Me on a Sunday" and Rick Jensen's "Higher Than Heaven," that soars. Bobby Belfry continues to be someone to watch for. Catch him at Eighty Eight's, March 13, 20, and 27, at 11 pm.

SPEAKING OF FREE SPIRITS AND RAW TALENT, another MAC nominee (in the Male Debut category), pop-jazz singer-songwriter Steven Kowalczyk, has returned to Eighty Eight's with his dynamic band, deftly led by musical director Jonathan Smith. This talented young man uses a boyish charm with a hint of the devil when he interprets his songs--which are all original.

His style is hard to define. When he sings torch-style, you feel the pain; when he is upbeat, you feel happy. He ignites his audience. This new set encompasses a lot of soul and blues, which he handles with ease. In some ways, he is a mix of Chet Baker and Sting. While clearly influenced by rock music, Kowalczyk has a jazz sensibility in a league with the best of them. He's certainly not conventional cabaret--simply a bravura talent on the brink. He's at Eighty Eight's Fridays in March.

MONDAY NIGHTS AT OZONE (8 BEACH ST.) IN Tribeca are catching on fast. Dynamic singers Rachel Stern and Tom Coviello kicked off the series with a great start on March 3, and will be there every Monday, with sets starting at 7:45 pm. This is a fun, bohemian place to savor live food and raw talent. Special guests drop in, making for a great night of entertainment. The night I was there, Stern's multi-octave soprano tore the roof off the place as she sang a terrific "Can't Help Loving That Man of Mine," and Coviello's strong baritone soared on "Why Can't I Walk Away." The duo brought the house down with a soaring medley of "'I Have Dreamed" fused with "We Kiss in a Shadow" that was flawless. You'll have a great time. Go.

IN THE CLUBS: MAC nominee singer-pianist Eric Comstock re-opens The Blue Room at The Supper Club with a series of shows, March 20, 21, 27, and April 4 and 17, at 8:30 pm . Latin music royalty Celia Cruz and Tito Puente are at the Blue Note, until March 15 . "Pied-ˆ-Terre" is a new revue celebrating the music and lyrics of Cole Porter, at Eighty Eight's, Mondays in March, at 10:30 pm, with Constance Barron, Paul Claussen, Kerrianne Spellman Cort, and Judy Brown . Celtic singer Celia Falan is at The Duplex, Tues., March 17 . Stu Hamstra presents "New Faces," at The Oaks, March 24, with 1998 MAC debut nominees . The Chestnut Room has re-opened and the lineup includes Paul Katz, on March 13, 14, and 15; and the Leonard Hochman Trio, March 17-22. (Show times vary on all dates.)