Few singers possess the pure, natural beauty of voice that Rebecca Luker does, and she filled Feinstein’s at the Regency on December 15 with its refulgent sound. Not long ago, Luker seemed to be the successor to Mary Martin/Ethel Merman as Broadway’s First Lady when she starred in costly revivals of “Showboat,” “The Sound of Music,” and “The Music Man.” She made nary a mention of these in her act, preferring to focus her pipes on songs penned by women.
It was heaven to hear her sing Dorothy Fields’ lyrics to Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight,” and she gave equal, lovely value to Kay Swift’s “Can’t We Be Friends,” which Libby Holman sang to homo Clifton Webb in “The First Little Show” (1929), a song of unrequited desire that could be a Gay National Anthem.
Stephen Holden in The Times said that Luker could take over from Barbara Cook as Cabaret Doyenne, and she blushed when I mentioned that to her. Julie Andrews is another golden-throated singer that springs to mind, and Luker agreed about the difficulty of singing Jerome Kern, when I recalled Beverly Sills once blowing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” on “The Mike Douglas Show” on TV. “But I just love him, especially after I did ‘Showboat,’” she said. “Right now? I’m just an out of work actress, looking for the next job.” In the meantime, I think she should add Kern’s “All the Things You Are,” the most beautiful he ever wrote, to her rep. Imagine her voice on that one?
Luker returns to Feinstein’s May 9-20.
As opposed to Luker, Julie Wilson has maybe about five good notes left in her throat, but who the hell cares? It’s the interpretation, stupid! Wilson readily calls herself “an old bird,” but there was no one I would rather have sat out the transit strike with her than at Helen’s Hideaway on December 21. Like ageless supermodel Carmen Dell’Orifice, Wilson is one of our town’s great beauties, with those big blue wounds she uses for eyes and that Billie Holliday gardenia plastered to her awesome bone structure. She was half an hour late for her set, but she made it—more than I can say for Jennifer Jason Leigh who cancelled the matinee of “Abigail’s Party” I was supposed to attend that afternoon, an hour before curtain time.
Very ably assisted by accompanist Christopher Denny, Wilson offered the nostalgic warmth that was the most comforting hearth on that chilly, trainless night, and she drew us all in with her reminiscences of Pearl Bailey (“We both had bad feet”), Ruth Etting (“I was a young chicken and she was the old bird, but so good to me”) and Joe E. Lewis, all of whose songs she sang.
Sprechgesang (talk-singing) is something she is past mistress of by now, and her interpretations of Rodgers & Hart’s “Blue Moon” and what is, in her opinion, Sondheim’s funniest song, cut from “Follies”—“Can That Boy Foxtrot”—were testaments to this. Wilson’s musical taste has always been impeccable as well as fresh, and I adored her rendition of Francesca Blumenthal’s “If He Were Straight and I Were Young,” a typical dilemma ditty that could well become another gay anthem.
Before going to Helen’s I popped into Chelsea’s Sports Bar next door for a drink and was struck by what a different gay world it is these days. Four different sports competitions played on large screens to a mostly oblivious crowd of suds-swillers. I wondered at this latest phenomenon of our community’s total, willing assimilation into mainstream culture, and drew certain drag parallels in queers posing as just regular guys with a “healthy” interest in sports to, well, drag queens, with their own identity assumptions. Except drag queens have some sense of the irony of it all, don’t they?
If posers and football games are not for you, why not spend some winter time, enjoying live music in venues like Helen’s , which has good, very reasonably priced eats, as well, or the tonier Feinstein’s, where the proprietor, Michael, himself, is holding forth on Year’s Eve (dinner at 9; show 10:30). is musical choice has always been flawless, and it’s wonderful to report that his voice is better than ever, a case of true artistic development. Madonna, who has been toiling musically for decades now, and can still barely carry a tune, could learn from his example. Admit it—doesn’t her ubiquitous “Hung Up” positively suck? Besides being utterly formulaic and derivative, even her worst enemies might have hoped that, at age 47, she’d have better lyrics than “Ring ring ring goes the telephone.”
And herewith, in alphabetical order, my ten top cultural picks of 2005:
“The Big Time”—The hit of the New York Musical Festival had the benefit of Douglas Carter Beane’s deliciously satirical libretto, Douglas J. Cohen’s music, and an entrancing cast that included Jackie Hoffman, typecast as a terrorist. Revive it now!
“The Color Purple”—Oprah indeed came up a winner here. There’s more pure joy, beauty, sexiness, and fabulous design on this stage than has been seen in many a moon. You’ll rarely experience a more uncannily committed performance than LaChanze as Celie.
Jack Donahue at the Algonquin—Luscious is the word that springs to mind to describe the voice, musical taste and arrangements of this supremely talented young gun of cabaret. His CD, “Strange Weather,” remains a must-have.
“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”—David Yazbek’s witty, hip music sparked this hilarious, exuberant show, which delivered everything Broadway should, with performances by Norbert Leo Butz, Sherie Rene Scott, and John Lithgow that should enter into legend.
“The Inheritors”—No single play this year contained as much pure prescient intelligence as Susan Glaspell’s 1921 work, which tackled xenophobia, directed toward both American and East Indians, pernicious nationalism, the suppression of free speech, prison reform, and academic strife, making this perhaps even more relevant today. On a shoestring and the tiniest stage, Metropolitan Playhouse served the work with the glory it deserved.
“The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow”—Rolin Jones’ writing had a real thrill of the new and, thank heaven, was about something, two essential qualities often lacking in contemporary playwriting. Jackson Gray’s sparkling direction and terrifically in-synch actors made for sheer exhilaration.
Mikio Naruse at Film Forum—The emotionally true, woman-celebrating oeuvre of this little-known Japanese master was celebrated with 31 of his glowing films. Their content made mincemeat of the paltry stuff passing for cinema today, especially the trashy camp of “Memoirs of a Geisha.”
Chita Rivera at Feinstein’s at the Regency—A sizzling precursor to the autobiographical “The Dancer’s Life.”
“Sides: The Fear is Real”—The funniest production of the year unveiled the often absurd tribulations Asian actors must endure in this business called “show.” The dead-on hilariousness of the cast—Mr. Miyagi’s Theatre Company—was matched by the wit of their collaborated script.
“Walking Down Broadway” – The Mint Theater did itself proud with the world premiere of Dawn Powell’s marvelous 1931 play. Direction, performances, and, above all, the right period flavor made this a production to cherish for all one’s life.
Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com.