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PHOTO: Joe Putrock

Idle Hands

Lawmakers make asses of themselves in public—this time, for charity


By John Brodeur

The room is stocked full with dapper dudes with button-down collars and silk ties, pressed suits, dark shoes and lots of hair gel, all milling about and patting each other on the back as they pass. Among or alongside them are women who are either trying to look engaged or downing enough red wine to get to a point where that’s not so difficult. This could be North Pearl Street on any night of the week.

But tonight’s is not the regular pick-up crowd. Members of the State Assembly have assembled tonight (Tuesday, May 29) on the third floor of Jillian’s nightclub in downtown Albany for a decidedly noncurricular activity: to sing! The event, a contest modeled after American Idol (and nicknamed Legislative Idol), pits 12 men and women not exactly known for their vocal prowess against one another in a singing contest—all in the name of charity. (Proceeds benefit the Alzheimer’s Association of Northeastern NY and Justice for Children International, a Connecticut-based group working to combat child sex trafficking.)

This is a strange, fabricated universe where Sanjaya and Joe Bruno share punchlines. Granted, as a colleague of mine points out, “75 percent of these people don’t even want to be here.” Due to the Assembly’s anti-fraternization policy, Legislative interns aren’t allowed to attend. My colleague points to several men lugging their suitcases and says, “This is keeping them from going home.”

But staging this event at a nightclub was the right idea. While the crowd hovers close to the bar in the rear of the room for the early part in the evening, by halfway through the show they’ve gotten lubricated enough to brave the areas on either side of the “stage”—which is, by the way, little more than a band set up at one end of a dance floor, with a rented (and crackling) P.A. and no stage lighting, save for a single utility light illuminating the performers from the floor.

Of course this brings out the bastard in some—one ringing endorsement went something like, “I want my 10 dollars back! You suck!”—but, for the most part, both patrons and performers are good sports.

Backed by the Dan Wray Band, the legislators take to the stage, one by one (mostly). Bill Parment (D-North Harmony) gamely renders “Jambalaya.” Tim Gordon (D-Bethlehem) and Ellen Young (D-Flushing) harmonize—sort of—on “You Are My Sunshine.” Bill Scarborough (D-Jamaica) takes a stab at “My Girl,” snapping his fingers and showing off a creamy falsetto (even when singing the wrong note). Joe Saladino (R-Massapequa) smiles his way through “Shower the People” with a shaky vibrato and an oversize caricature of a voice that does not in the least resemble that of the song’s author, James Taylor.

Meanwhile, the judges—Assembly Sergeant Wayne Jackson (playing the “role” of Randy Jackson), Marilee King of Zap Legislative Courier Service (as Paula Abdul), and intellectual-property lawyer (and Metroland columnist/critic) Paul Rapp (as Simon Cowell), take it all in from a table facing the performers. While the judges’ commitment to the assigned roles wanes early, Jackson does begin a few of his comments with the requisite “Yo dawg” and Rapp offers a few Cowell-esque quips. When Jim Conte (R-Huntington Station)—a “family values” Republican, mind you—pulls the stunt of accompanying himself on acoustic guitar for a rendition of “Walk on the Wild Side,” Rapp comments, “You evoked Lou Reed—although I’m not sure why anyone would want to do that.”

The evening’s M.C., Senator Joe Robach (R-Greece), introduces “The Legend” Joe Lentol (D-North Brooklyn), who tackles “The Impossible Dream” with Spitzer-like authority. His meter is all over the place at first, but as the players settle in and begin to follow him, it turns into one of the evening’s more enjoyable performances. He pushes his baritone up to the high note that leads into the song’s chorus and the crowd goes wild. Lentol’s actually got a voice on him. And the audience is behind him all the way, chanting “Joe-y! Joe-y!” when his performance concludes.

State Sen. John Flanagan (R, C-East Northport) asks the audience to back him up on a groan-inducing rendition of “You Light Up My Life,” and boy does he need it: He doesn’t locate the melody until halfway through the song. Robach remarks, “I felt like Chuck Barris of The Gong Show,” while Jackson, who Robach affectionately refers to as “chocolate thunder” at one point, remarks “Sanjaya, look out!”

Annette Robinson (D-Brooklyn), nervous about her voice, waves off the band and decides to go at “I Believe” a cappella. She actually sports one of the best instruments of the night, but the crowd, increasingly noisy, talks right through it. “Gorgeous” George Latimer (D-Westchester), takes on “Everybody Loves Somebody” from atop a barstool, with highball glass in hand, in a passable Dean Martin impression.

And then the show-stopper, literally: the “Staten Island Six”—Michael Cusick (D-Mid Island), Janele Hyer-Spencer (D-Staten Island/Brooklyn), Lou Tobacco (R-Staten Island), Matthew Titone (D-North Shore), and State Senators Diane Savino (D-Staten Island/Brooklyn) and Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island)—shuffle and warble their way through the Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You,” ruffly shirts and all. It is plainly awful, but the assembly (the audience, that is), sensing closure, is loud and enthusiastic.

After what seems like hours (less than two, actually), Lentol faces off with the Staten Island contingent for the top honors, and wins (deservedly). All in the name of charity. Because if it were in the name of music . . . well, let’s just be thankful it’s not.

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