Petula Clark in NYC
Feinstein's at Loews Regency

by Rob Lester

Petula Clark
She may be singing "Who Am I?" as her second number, but there is no doubt that the secure and comfortable—but gracious and often casual—Petula Clark knows who she is on stage and who she has been to her audience. Whether singing theatre songs or pop, she's in charge and looks great. With ease, she wears her earned status as star and creator of an audience's collective musical memories. She is not at war with those memories, but respects them, has pride in them, indulges or teases them just enough so the oldies don't seem sacred or like rusty relics. Her New York City engagement at Feinstein's at Loews Regency, running through February 11th, finds her in fine form, connecting strongly with her appreciative audience. The act is an admirable balancing act, sprinkling fun puffs of pop among meatier, more mature material from the musical theatre and a couple of pieces of her own writing.

Cole Porter's "I Concentrate on You" is the opening number, establishing her command, demonstrating varied vocal colors and tempi, with a crackling, active arrangement. Another Porter piece comes later—the oh-so-etiquette-attending statement that the just-deceased "Miss Otis Regrets (She's Unable to Lunch Today)"—and she seems to relish its oddness, scooping her voice on the often-used word "Madame" and pausing for reactions and chanting comments from the band. Other selections by theatre writers represented roles she's played. Petula shares anecdotes about characters she played, talking about the renegade behavior of director Francis Ford Coppola with his early-career assignment directing her in the motion picture version of Finian's Rainbow, recalling Fred Astaire balking at the idea of dancing on the real hills he drove them out to ("I don't do that!"), rather than on a studio set, as per usual. Adopting the character's brogue, she introduces what she calls "a darlin' little song from a darlin' little film." Her endearing and sincere rendition of a famed number she had in the movie, "How Are Things in Glocca Morra?," does not preclude a sense of camaraderie with top-notch, very present drummer Dan Gross whistling at the beginning line, "I hear a bird: a Glocca Morra bird ..."

Later, Clark cloaks herself with a decorative wrap over her classy, hip black outfit (with some light-catching glitz), taking some time to describe the unsettled mindset of silent film star Norma Desmond, whom she played in Sunset Boulevard. Taking on the role after others had, she recalled Broadway's Norma, Glenn Close, advising her about the demanding role, "Petula, don't do it for more than eight months. You'll end up in a clinic." She did it for two years. Setting up the score's "With One Look," with some dialogue, she performs in a way that opts to bite with slow burn through some lines, wide-eyed. Lingering over lines, the early parts with just piano, she acts much of it, rather than belting the rage, showstopper style. However, the singing voice retains its distinctive sound and vibrancy, and while arrangements throughout allow for some light, clipped lines and quick pace, strength of sustained ending notes can be impressive, clarion clear. She may be judicious in using power, but there's no feel of apologetically acquiescing to the passage of time—no ragged, wide vibrato or struggle. Not represented are her earlier musical theatre leads preserved on cast albums, in The Sound of Music (London, 1981) or the the musical she did later on Broadway and on tour, Blood Brothers, although her musical director/pianist at Feinstein's is the man who conducted during her tour of the show—Grant Sturiale, also known as a songwriter for some recent shows and composer of the memorable romp, Olympus on My Mind. They've collaborated for some years, and he'll be accompanying her as she takes off shortly for an Australian tour.

The talented Sturiale sits out to allow Petula to accompany herself in two spots. One is a striking and emotional medley of two classics by the Gershwins, where a longing "Someone to Watch Over Me" melts into "The Man I Love." Also at the keyboard, she recalls how taken she was when she had the opportunity to see Edith Piaf in person, singing "La vie en rose." It will be on the upcoming album of French songs by this lady who's spent much of her life in France and has recorded in various languages, having maintained an international career. She also tells the story of once being in a recording studio to take on back-to-back versions of a number in different languages—and offers a chorus of each. She relates that she'd scoffed at—and resisted—the idea of doing it in English because it was so different from her series of hits with a bouncy beat. But "This Is My Song" was a success everywhere.

And yes, of course, there is her giant identifying "Downtown." She encourages the audience to sing the title line with her. But what could follow "Downtown"? Answer: "Downtown"—or, rather, the whole new lyric written by Barry Kleinbort (sung frequently by cabaret's Jamie deRoy) that uses the melody, and comments cleverly on the sprouting up of so many chain drug stores with zillions of items throughout the city, and the crowd happily sang along with the game songstress on the title name, "Duane Reade." Since "Downtown" comes late in the show and is so identified with the star, when she says she wants to recite a poem she's written, she slyly admits that one might sense the crowd's reluctance, cracking that we might be thinking, "Oh, why doesn't she just sing 'Downtown' so we can all go home?" Actually, the poem, about the importance of the theatre, is pensive and well-received. Written on a train ride, it reflects on the community, satisfactions of the work and the safety of a script and provides character as opposed to the uncertainty of real life ("It's a funny thing, the theatre ... We hear about the magic ... So, here we are, in this hallowed space ..."). Another aspect of her talent and serious side comes with her powerful lyric written as a catharsis after 9/11 and set by David Hadzis, "Starting All Over Again."

Trotting out nine big hits, alone or paired, there is no sense of trying to raise light pop to lofty heights by riding the power of a nostalgia wave. Here and there, but without condescension, there's a playful, twinkle-eyed Petula Clark, shrugging or winking at a line or zipping through it to show that she is not about to puff up anything, least of all herself or her legacy. But the charisma is as electric as the guitar and bass. Despite the prominent presence of her string of smashes from the '60s (written by Tony Hatch, some co-written with Jackie Trent), it's not about trying to pretend that time has stood still and chestnuts just need to be reheated. With 45 years or more having passed since those 45 rpm records seduced ears with strong, buoyant hooks, canny arrangements and phrasing, it's nice to have them freshened with a sense of surprise and how the lady might view them today.

Arrangements for the four-man band are often brisk, electrified, heavy on beat, but hardly simple and plain. In addition to pianist Sturiale and drummer Gross, the dynamo players were Courtney Sappington and Jason Di Matteo on bass. For "My Love," Petula claims she's often wondered what it would sound like had it been a country hit, and jumps into a broadly goofy spoof of the genre and a Southern accent with that number.

Her act's goodbye comes from Goodbye, Mr. Chips, the Leslie Bricusse-scored musical film wherein she memorably played the female lead, reprising "You and I." A warm embrace of the crowd, mutual gratitude seems to envelop the room, and the "you" in the lyric becomes the whole audience: "You and I will travel far together ... growing older, growing closer/ making memories that light the sky." The memories surely light up the room with a warm golden glow.

The Petula Clark engagement, extended by popular demand since this review was first published, now runs through February 11, adding three 8:00 pm shows. The remaining shows are: Wednesday, February 1 (8 pm); Thursday, February 2 (8 pm); Friday, February 3 (8 pm and 10:30 pm); Saturday, February 4 (8 pm and 10:30 pm); Thursday, February 9 (8pm); Friday, February 10 (8 pm); Saturday, February 11 (8 pm). Feinstein's at Loews Regency is on Park Avenue at East 61 Street in Manhattan. See for information and costs (cover charge, minimum, service fee).

Photo: Feinstein's at Loews Regency

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