Thursday, December 13, 2012

Cortes Alexander's Have A Swell Holiday Show was...Swell!

Cortes Alexander. Photos by Eric Schneider

There’s no denying it was a Swell night at Sterling’s Upstairs at the Federal on December 10th, thanks to Cortes Alexander and his Have a Swell Holiday Show. It was my first introduction to the charming performer, and it was also my first time at Sterling’s new supper club, where producer Michael Sterling has continued his tradition of presenting some of the finest musical theatre artists and nightclub entertainers L.A. has to offer.

Sterling moved to his present location in April, following a successful six year run at his original venue, Upstairs at Vitello’s in Studio City. The Federal’s sophisticated ambience offers a cool, uptown vibe and an intimate setting that highlights an ever-changing array of artists and music, perfect for a historic building in the NoHo Arts District that has itself had many different lives.

Alexander’s set list featured an eclectic mix of styles, from jazz to musical theatre to pop, with holiday favorites that slipped between his original songs like twinkling lights peeking out from a Christmas tree. He began the show with his own arrangement of Bricusse & Newly’s “Pure Imagination,” setting the tone for the evening with an enchanting invitation to travel in a world of his creation. Entertaining stories followed to introduce some of his original compositions. Among them were “Driving Song,” a smooth, slow composition about his first car, “LA to Paris,” a touching ode to love, and “Marguerite,” inspired by the cow in Hal Prince’s backyard.

He talked about touring the world with Liza Minnelli, good and bad reviews he’s received, and how you can see his mother – well, her back at least – in the rain scene of Singing in the Rain. She was responsible for instilling in Alexander a joy for music and an ever-optimistic love of life as they tooled down the open road in their VW bus singing at the top of their lungs. His heartfelt remembrances were moving, and often humorous.

In the spirit of the season, Alexander included several luscious holiday songs including a jazzy version of “Winter Wonderland” arranged by Jason Robert Brown, Kay Thompson’s arrangement of “Jingle Bells,” and his own arrangement of “The Christmas Song.” It doesn’t matter how many times I hear that song, I love it every time and his version is quite special.

Cortes Alexander and The Swell Girls, (L-R) Julie Garnye and Melissa Bailey.

Back-up was provided by the outstanding Swell Girls, Melissa Bailey and Julie Garnye, each featured in a big way; Bailey on a terrific arrangement she and Alexander created for “Slow Boat to China/Shanghai” by Frank Loesser and Garnye on the beautiful “Any Day Now.” The band was first-rate, led by musical director John Boswell on piano and included Norman Ludwin on bass, Terry Schoenig on percussion, and Paul Landry on guitar. Landry’s feature on the charming “Love on a Greyhound Bus” was a highlight.

A nice guy with a big personality and a charming way with a song – that’s Cortes Alexander. Spend an evening with him the next time he appears in L.A.

Cortes Alexander’s Have a Swell Holiday, Sterling’s Upstairs at the Federal, 5303 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. You can check out upcoming shows at Sterling’s Upstairs online at For reservations call (818) 754-8700.

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