How better to celebrate the fourth night of Hanukkah than by throwing a shoe at Bernard Madoff? On December 24, nightlife impresario Michael Dorf, who gave the world the Knitting Factory, opened his new space, City Winery, with a variety show that served as the fourth evening of New York’s fourth annual Sephardic Music Festival. Entitled “Midnight Mess,” the program consisted of two musical acts and two comics. The event’s host was the celebrated Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross — a Zionist Dame Edna of sorts, who is the alter ego of comedian Amichai Lau-Lavie. In the middle of the menorah lighting, the Rebbetzin produced a large cardboard cutout of the alleged Ponzi schemer and incited audience members to hurl their footwear at it.
The first performer after the Rebbetzin was comic Todd Barry, who began with a few lines about a watermelon yarmulke, and then riffed on the Container Store. He also zinged a few choice ad-libs towards that recent plague of nightclubs: patrons who can’t get their noses out of their BlackBerrys: “I’m glad to see you guys are getting some good texting done.” Then Leah Siegel, a folkish singer-songwriter who accompanied herself on electric and then acoustic guitars, served up three originals and two memorable covers: “White Christmas” (You don’t get more Jewish than Irving Berlin) and an anguished, post-modernist reading of “Que Sera Sera.”
The first three acts were even-toned and understated — even Hadassah Gross is that great rarity, a subtle drag queen. Into the wine-sipping calm of the room, comic-singer Jackie Hoffman exploded like a hand grenade in a barrel of gefilte fish. Unlike everyone who preceded her, Hoffman is loud, fast, and funny — and loud. Did I say loud? I had heard her do a lot of the same bits two weeks earlier at The Trail of Our Vinyl show at Joe’s Pub, but she never fails to break me up when she describes an orgy in a synagogue or sings about Shavuos, which, I never before realized, rhymes with “Jerry Lewis.”
The musical climax of the evening was provided by pianist and composer Anthony Coleman, whose work is alternately described as avant-garde, jazz, and Jewish music — and, from what I’ve heard, it’s all three at once. The latest edition of his long-running ensemble, Sephardic Tinge, consisted of Mr. Coleman on piano and trumpeter Frank London, the latter playing expressively, both open-belled and using several mutes. The duo essayed five pieces, all of which seemed to be a combination of traditional Sephardic melodies and Coleman originals. These included, a slow, mournful dirge, appropriate for a kaddish or funeral; a fast lively party piece or freylich, and a tune in dance time that was almost a tango.
It was an entertaining evening — made all the more enjoyable by the classiness of Dorf’s new room, which aims to bring oenophiles and music buffs to the same table.