Catcalled onto the stage by a rowdy band who’ve come to his place for a party, Ezra Axelrod first appears wearing nothing but a very low slung towel – clearly he’s a man who knows how to get an audience’s attention. Luckily for the more easily distracted in the crowd (which would, of course, include me), once he’s powered through a jaunty opener about backstage romance, ‘Prayer From a Dressing Room’ (much of which he performs while wearing the teeniest pants I have seen in a long time) he switches to more respectable attire, and the show proper gets under-way. Equally luckily for the audience, it turns out that Axelrod doesn’t need to be half naked to hold our attention.
Launched as part of LGBT History month, Songs From the American Motel is loosely structured around the story of Axelrod’s life. A mixture of song and spoken word, it takes us from his youth, growing up gay in America’s heartland (with all the frustrations that entailed) through to his poignant first experience of love, to ending up here, in the vibrant heart of London. Along the way we encounter tales of adventures and misadventures: of the eccentric Jewish immigrant family who shaped him, the fratboy parties he was never invited to so could only ever imagine; of a romantic journey that takes in deflowering a female exchange student (which gives rise to the evening’s best joke – I won’t spoilt it here), an ethically dubious fling with a teacher and a volatile relationship that, I kid you not, culminates in a chase through a forest in the middle of a hurricane in South America. It’s safe to say, the man has lived.
Performed by a full band, with Axelrod doing double duty on vocals and piano, the songs are warm, witty and sometimes very moving. The title number, ‘American Motel’, and the upbeat ode to adult entertainment, ‘Pornstars & Broken Hearts’, are both insanely catchy, while ’10 Million Lights’ is a poignant meditation on loneliness in the big city. The show manages to maintain a careful balance between sincerity and schmaltz, so that while it feels emotionally honest, it is also never less than entertaining. Although Axelrod’s singing is more serviceable than sensational, that’s fine – he’s not pitching himself as the next Adele. Here you’re buying, if you’ll excuse the phrase, the whole package, and it’s an engaging and enjoyable one. As a performer, Axelrod is charm personified – self-deprecating, likeable and sharp-tongued, he interacts well with the audience, clearly aware of the ridiculousness of some of his self-eulogizing, but not shying away from the common human core behind the facade.
He’s served well by the intimacy of the Leicester Square Theatre lounge space, which sees his six-strong band crammed into a cluttered motel room set: in fact the venue is perhaps too intimate, as the seats were so tightly packed together I was surprised people could fit into some of them, and the audience was so close to the stage that at one point he declared to the front row, ‘I’d normally do a twirl here but I’m afraid I’d hit you.’ Still, it adds to the pleasingly informal vibe, making us all gatecrashers at this impromptu party.
Axelrod is supported by a talented and well-meshed group, with standouts being support vocalists Tim Oxbrow and Dwayne Washington, doing a fine job of acting out his various loves, bassist/vocalist Tom Parsons (lately of Avenue Q) and Willemijn Steenbakkers, the only woman in the band, who certainly plays a mean fiddle. Director Martina Bonolis keeps the set to a tight 80 minutes, so it’s careful not to outstay its welcome, but on this evidence Axelrod is already a performer with places to go.