On a recent Thursday morning, hours before any actual show was staged, the John Lee Beatty-decorated walls of Feinstein’s/ 54 Below rang with joyous sounds, both mellow and ultra-funky, with peeks at the upcoming cabaret lineup at Manhattan’s “living room.” Femmes formidables Joanna Gleason, Rebecca Luker, Betsy Wolfe, and Nicole Vanessa Ortiz each sang a number from their act, and, afterwards, lucky me was able to sit down and chat with two of my all-time favorites, Ortiz and Luker.
Broadway newbie Ortiz, who recently ended her star-making run in “Smokey Joe’s Café,” is presenting her cabaret debut, “Becoming Her: A Diva’s Tribute,” on March 7. I have a wonderful karmic link to this gorgeous young lady with a spectacular voice who slayed the Apollo Theater audiences at its legendary talent show. Her first New York show was the piquant “Spamalot,” which I caught on the very first night she performed. I came away gobsmacked by her beauty, astounding charismatic energy, and voice, which encompasses everything from Whitney Houston to Maria Callas. Adorably, she never lets me forget that I gave her her first review.
More stunning than ever, with her lush multi-ethnic face, in a snazzy white pants suit with the coolest floral motif, she really raised the roof of 54 with an electrifying rendition of “I’m Every Woman” that suffused everyone present with pure, healthy joy.
“Hi, baby! I saw you guys rocking to my song and loved your energy,” Ortiz said. “Yes, I am honoring Chaka, Cher, Alanis Morisette, Gloria Estefan, Whitney Houston, Phyllis Hyman, Aretha, and the surprise of the night will be our Pat Benatar medley! I also include Big Mama Thornton because in ‘Smokey Joe’s,” when we did ‘Hound Dog,’ that rendition was more the B.J. Crosby revised version that was referenced from her take. Hers was a completely different world compared to the Broadway interpretation people are used to hearing, but they need to know about the birth of the blues and rock as per women like her. She also influenced Tina Turner, who grew up listening to her, developing into what she became with Ike, but Tina was Tina and then did her own phenomenal thing. So there’s a good interwoven effect of how all these women complemented one another in a genre-cohesive and statement-cohesive way.
“With Pat Benatar, you can turn the music off and just read her lyrics, which were very pro-woman and feminist, and it’s gonna be cool to just swim around these figures and bring them back to life. I know Pat Benatar is still around and lives in Brooklyn, and I’m trying to find a way to get to someone to get in her ear and say, ‘Hey, listen, you’re gonna be honored at this one-night special in New York. Come on, Pat!” (And I’m sure among In the Noh readers, someone who knows her!)
Ortiz really is a singer for our day, with a message of empowerment, not just for blacks or women, but for us all: “I just recently turned 31, and I realized that I am still young but my entire 30th year was eye-opening about who I am and what I had been suppressing because I thought it would be beneficial to the environment around me. I was always trying to appease people instead of just being, and these woman I am revering in this set were the quintessential personification of just being because they were figures in music, when they got on stage they became all about what they had to say.
“‘Smokey Joe’s’ was such a showcase for me, one of the few shows to really feature me as a singer, and with my debut here people will get an extension of my own dynamic because in the show everyone heard me at my most over-the-top. My voice has a subdued range, as well, I’d like people to know.”
From Whitney Houston, Ortiz said, she learned to take her time while singing and really interpret the lyric. But it was Gladys Knight who heard her sing “I Will Always Love You” one fateful night at the Apollo and offered her a job touring with her.
“Gladys they should just call the Godmother of Soul because unfortunately we’ve lost so many great people, especially women in soul music. When I met her after I sang, in the green room, she said something I will never forget: ‘You have the spirit. Just protect it because it is so exposed.’ That woman really knew what she was doing, because every year it means something different. She said, ‘Keep good people near you. You have a gift.’ Meanwhile, I’m star-struck, veins popping out on my neck and I’m not even talking!
“She knew I wouldn’t get it then, but I get it now because I am such a sharing giver when I perform and an OG like her was telling me to protect myself. Yes, mother, yes! I cherish the photo we took together, which is on my Instagram, so much warmth and love. She’s so maternal, which is what I hope to be some day, a maternal figure watching over everyone. And I thought she sang the National Anthem at the Superbowl beautifully! That woman knows how to use her voice, and she doesn’t have to try to do what anyone else is doing. Yes, people were feeling a bit sensitive because of Kaepernick, but at the end of the day somebody has to get up there. The fact that she sang did not mean that she agrees with what’s going on in the NFL but it was important, I thought, that she stand as a figure of hope, while we continue fighting for what should be happening in this country.
I also had the thrill to speak with the ever brightly shining Rebecca Luker, who will always be Broadway royalty to me, especially married as she is to Danny Burstein, as if Maria von Trapp (which she’s done) somehow got spliced with Tevye (which he’s done), after their escapes from the Old World that is. Luker’s evening of Gershwin songs on March 24 sounds like one real class act, and she talked about her musical heritage.
“I’ve always been sort of a highbrow musical gal, but I also grew up doing folk, rock, and pop, and have even crossed over into a more classical area,” she said. “I’ve been sort of all over the place but this music is the quintessential me, in a way, ballads by Gershwin and Kern.”
Luker sang a throbbingly elegant rendition of that immortal torch song “The Man I Love,” which the Gershwins wrote in 1924, but mystifyingly kept being dropped from Broadway show after Broadway show. Her 54 gig, “Got Rhythm,” is being presented by Deborah Grace Winer, who also does the popular Lyrics & Lyricist series at the 92nd Street Y. I commented on the added beauty and richness of Luker’s voice at this stage in her life, and Winer agreed.
“Apart from the fact that she’s one of my absolute dearest friends in the world, I don’t think there’s a voice in a generation since Barbara Cook that’s like Rebecca’s,” Winer said. “You are right, because, as she’s gone on, it has even more of a patina and luminosity. And there’s the pure joy with which she sings, like it’s in her heart and she is sending it directly. Barbara Cook was the last person who had that luminosity.”
In the 1990s, Luker was Broadway’s undisputed go-to ingenue, taking on, in succession, a series of classic roles in big shows: “Show Boat,” “The Sound of Music,” “The Music Man.”
“She monopolized those roles because she was that good!,” Winer observed, but to me it also seems like at that time there wasn’t the wide assortment of dazzling triple threat ladies we have today who could step into those roles at a moment’s notice — like Kelli O’Hara, Sutton Foster, Laura Benanti, Laura Osnes, Jessie Mueller, and Stephanie Block.
“I had a good run,” Luker said, “but I’m not dead yet! Those were really fun wonderful years, but there were a number of greats who were my contemporaries then, too: Marin Mazzie, God rest her soul, Judy Kuhn, but I do see what you mean. There does seem to be a wonderful plethora of leading ladies now. The one thing I really don’t do is a high belt — never really figured out how to do that. Now, Betsy Wolfe, who just sang for us, has that wonderful high soprano and a belt.”
Luker has made a lovely transition from lead actor to character part player in “Mary Poppins” and the recent “Fun Home,” when she took over for Kuhn.
“One of my favorite theater experiences ever,” Luker said of the latter role. “And that’s saying a lot! It was so different for me, a contemporary role, and I loved the story and the music. It was wonderful to be in a contemporary setting. But you’re right, David. It was such a sad show, but what a great exit I had: I’m leaving the room now, leaving, after I sing a really kick-ass solo, and everybody’s like, ‘Awww!’ I was in it for two months and fell in love with the entire cast and crew.”
Winer reminded Luker of another new show she recently did as part of the Barrow Group’s Inner Voices series, where three composers write one-man, one-act musicals, each about 40 minutes long.”
“I did one called ‘Scaffolding,’ by Jeff Blumenkrantz, directed by Vicky Clark,” Luker explained. “It was a wonderful experience, right up there with ‘Fun Home.’ A monologue about a troubled mother, who’s raising an autistic child and trying to get him into MIT, so it’s challenging. I’d never done a one-woman show before and it was really fun. I’m doing real character stuff now. I don’t know where I’ve been all these years that I didn’t do them! I got to do the fairy godmother in ‘Cinderella,’ replacing Vicky Clark — getting to play a crazy old lady in the woods was so much fun, I don’t know why I didn’t do more of it when I was younger. I tell kids today, ‘Do everything you can. Don’t let them pigeonhole you,’ although it’s hard not to get pigeonholed when you are a certain type.’ And David, I’m so glad you remember ‘Indian Blood,’ by Pete [A.R.] Gurney, really a wonderful world premiere to be a part of. Yes, I sang a tiny bit in it, too, a Cole Porter song. I miss Pete.”
Three nights before I interviewed Luker, I had seen her husband Burstein as Alfred Doolittle in the Lincoln Center “My Fair Lady.” My orchestra ticket was a gift from a friend who, unfortunately, wasn’t aware that star Laura Benanti is always off Tuesday nights. Not a happy camper, I took my seat and the long first act went by in the undistinguished way I thought it would, while thinking to myself, “This show positively cries out for a real star as Eliza!”
But in the “Get Me to the Church” number, Burstein came on, musical six guns blazing, and really shook things up with his brilliant verve and deep humanity, actually making this song, which I’ve always rather dreaded, a stunning, uproarious tour-de-force. His blast of charisma seemed to give everyone else in the cast a much-needed kick in the ass and from that point on, the show was an energized delight, with understudy Kerstin Anderson really coming into her own, displaying a lovely, noble profile, like a ship’s figurehead, during the show’s final, protracted arguments between Eliza and Higgins (Clarke Thorell, brought up from his usual role as Zoltan Karpathy to fill in as the male lead).
I told Luker that for what Burstein — who was also the best “Fiddler on the Roof” Tevye ever — did that night the show should have been retitled “My Fair Doolittle.” Glowing with a wifely pride, she agreed: “Somehow, he takes all these iconic roles that have been around for 50 years and he breathes new life into them. I somehow always strive to be the actor he is, the hardest working person in the world next to Deb Winer!
“I’m so his wife, but I also so admire him. We’ve been married almost 22 years, and I have two stepsons, almost 23 and 26, from his first marriage. We met doing a show at the Old Globe in San Diego, ‘Time and Time Again,’ written by Jack Viertel with Skip Kennon music, a beautiful show that was supposed to come to Broadway. We were just friends for a year and a half before we started dating. It was a nice way to start and we have worked together a lot, done TV but not concerts, really. He is not a concert singer like me and doesn’t like to do that. I’d love to do another play — or musical! — with Danny. He’s such a good actor, he makes me better.”
Of Luker’s Feinstein’s/ 54 Below show, Winer explained, “This all-Gershwin show I am presenting with Rebecca on March 24 is part of my new classic American Songbook series which I do at 54 Below. I created it a year ago and this is kicking off our second season. The idea is to bring little jewel box revues and shows to this club setting the way it used to be. A lot of us in the business wish we’d been born 50 years earlier so we could have gone to those cool Manhattan places.
“When you create something like this, it’s like what the Gershwins used to do, create shows with their friends like Astaire and Merman, and everybody who was working at the time. I grew up in New York with George and Ira Gershwin’s sister, Frankie, who died in her 90s and did a lot of concerts and talked about what life was like with them. So the idea is to have the greatest singers doing these songs and talk about their backstories and how they speak to us today.”
NICOLE VANESSA ORTIZ | “Becoming Her: A Diva’s Tribute” | Feinstein’s/ 54 Below, 254 W. 54th St. | Mar. 7, 9:30 p.m. | $30-$65 at 54below.com; add $6 for purchase at the door; food & drink minimum is $25
REBECCA LUKER | “Got Rhythm” | Feinstein’s/ 54 Below, 254 W. 54th St. | Mar. 24, 7 & 9:30 p.m. | $35-$95 at 54below.com; add $6 for purchase at the door; food & drink minimum is $25