BISTRO BITS: Joie de Vivre

Barbara Brussell is making her Algonquin Oak Room debut through June 3 with her new show "I Wish You Love," deftly directed by Scott Barnes. With brilliant musical director Christopher Marlowe at the piano and bassist Steve La Spina, Brussell charms the room with show tunes, trenchant ballads, and songs by contemporary composers. It's all fused with fun, personalized anecdotes and stories about composers-making this one of the more auspicious debuts in a major room in awhile.

Brussell has become such a confident, exciting performer that it's hard to view her as one so new to cabaret. On completion of a stint at the O'Neill Cabaret Symposium in 1995, she made a debut at Eighty Eight's, which became her home for several years. There, she honed her craft, earning terrific reviews and a Bistro Award along the way. She performed at The FireBird earlier this season and now takes her bow at The Algonquin.

Whether crooning a standard such as "I've Got You Under My Skin," or using her willowy alto belt on Sondheim's "No More," Brussell has developed the artistic and technical prowess of an established veteran somewhat like Andrea Marcovicci. In the ballad-heavy show she displays considerable style and has blossomed into a fine singer. But beyond that, she possesses that ineffable quality that draws the audience to her. As various facets of her bubbly personality sparkle during her show, you see a glimmer of assorted famed ladies both serious and kooky. On the right number Brussell has the kind of vulnerability that commands empathy, and she backs this up with blunt phrasing that proves very effective. This was particularly evident on "Mira," from "Carnival." When she sang the line, "Can you imagine that? ... Everybody knew my name," she was a wide-eyed kid filled with hopes and dreams. It was full of so much halting yearning that you wanted to offer assurance.

She created a similar moment on John Wallowitch's touching "Photographs" and on Francesca Blumenthal's beauty "Museums." However, Brussell's strength lies in comic interpretations of silly songs like Amanda McBroom's quirky "Putting Things Away" or Bobbie Green's "I Wish." Both were real crowd-pleasers.

Some songs were reprised from Brussell's other shows. And that isn't a bad thing. It all demonstrates how important cabaret is-how old songs can have a totally new life and how new songs by great songwriters can get a start. While I may have had a minor quibble or two in the past about Brussell, I can only report on what I witnessed this time around. In short, Barbara Brussell's combination of talent and star quality is unique for one so new to this sphere. The audience couldn't get enough.

Watching Brussell making a major-room debut only a few years after her bow at Eighty Eight's, and knowing that cabaret stars of a certain age and ilk will simply not be performing forever, one can only imagine the possibilities before her.

For the past few years, Yanna Avis has worked hard at her craft. She's offered wonderfully entertaining shows with a lot of panache. Her multilingual songs in tightly knit acts have always recalled images of Dietrich, Piaf, and the tasteful and charming naughty ladies Cole Porter wrote about. Today, this glamorous beauty glided through a sexy, fun hour with joie de vivre to spare.

Avis has had to work through the burdens of her well-known last name and social status to be taken more seriously for what she is, not who she is. And, the results are bravura. With this new show, under two-time Tony-winner Thommie Walsh's effulgent direction, her intentions and talent will never again be questioned. So, once and for all, let's forget the last name and treat this hypnotic lady as the triple-threat talent into which she has evolved in one of the season's best acts.

Always in touch with her strengths, Avis has found her niche as an interpreter of a savoir faire cabaret recalling the beginnings of this time-honored genre. Like a young Dietrich, she, too, has become a master illusionist of intelligent, often silly, sex-ridden images in song and fantasy.

Opening with the rarity "Look Me Over Closely" (which Dietrich recorded, but never performed in public), Avis saunters like a sexy burlesque queen from one end of the caf to the other; arching her back, seductively flirting, she sets the stage for this steamy act. Cole Porter's "Ça c'est l'amour," followed by Michel Emer's "Je m'en fous pas mais," is almost debauching in its presentation. Remarking that "in sailing over thin water, your safety net is your speed," she glides through German, Spanish, and French songs that are electrically charged paeans to another era.

Highlights on the night I attended also included "Ten Cents a Dance," "An Occasional Man," and "Just a Gigolo." Each was infused with sex appeal and subtle choreography that cast a spell over the room enhanced by the haunting accordion in her instrumental trio. As she captured every irony of Murray Grand's "Guess Who I Saw Today?," it read like a whispered three-act play. Once in fierce control of her emotion and body language, Walsh has managed to strip away Avis' patrician veneer. Closing with her mainstay, "Parlez-moi d'amour," Yanna Avis proved she could climb more than just the social ladder. This careful crafted show dispelled any doubts and proved the lady is a winner-in any language. Watch for her return to The FireBird in the fall.

Always in perfect touch with who she is, cabaret favorite Jamie deRoy paraded out more friends in an entertaining series of shows at the Laurie Beechman Theater at the West Bank Caf recently. The show I caught had a terrific lineup with some impressive talent on hand. It was nice to spot newer faces this time around, and there were some real highlights.

Particular standouts included Australia's Maree Johnson, whose lyrical soprano soared in an expressive reading of "We Kiss," and Alex Rybeck's beautiful "What a Funny Boy He Is." Angela LaGreca was a laugh riot, and her comedy schtick about the Clintons couldn't have been better. Singing Rick Crom's "Denial," about turning pathetic circumstance into glory, she showed how great special material can be. Julie Gold sang a socio-political ditty about cops and shooting in her beauty called "The Journey."

While musical comics Jodie Eisenstein and George Wurzbach weren't as effective as in the past, musical comedy star Mary Testa, who recalls the younger Bernadette Peters, made up for it in spades. Singing a glorious version of "That's Enough for Me," she brought the house down and walked away with the evening.

Telling a fun tale about Barry Manilow once being her accompanist, deRoy was her usual, fun-filled self-the perfect host. "Jamie deRoy & Friends" has now won four MAC awards and is seen coast to coast on cable television. The roster of guests is mind-boggling. I guess the only comedy team that hasn't appeared is the Clintons!

"Saturday in the Cabaret with Wayman," at The FireBird last Saturday, was supposed to be the Daily News entertainment editor's annual birthday bash. It was-and then some. What a swell party! Donning his hat as performer and director, Wayman Wong put together one of the top shows of the season, which became the first cabaret salute to Stephen Sondheim in the new millennium. The show featured some of today's finest male singers: Tom Andersen, Bobby Belfry, Scott Coulter, Tim DiPasqua, Jack Donahue, Eric Michael Gillett, Sean McDermott, Sidney Myer, Jim Walton, and the incomparable Tommy Femia as Judy Garland. Femia capped another wonderful hour for one of our own most popular and loved cabaret champions. David Gurland's parody of "Broadway Baby" renamed, "Bistro Baby" was a very "in" laugh riot. Congrats, Wayman. Thanks to you, in cabaret, no one is alone.