Linda Lavin Soars at Birdland
Report by Rob Lester

photo: Bill Westmoreland
In short, this is what cabaret is supposed to be. Linda Lavin is not only a pro with a pedigree, but she's immensely likeable and has better timing than a sudden cool breeze on a hot summer night. Come to think of it, that's what she is. The veteran of stage and TV radiates an odd combination of star charisma and accessible down-to-earth realness which is refreshing. Her nightclub act is a rewarding, sometimes revealing, and thoroughly entertaining visit. She didn't need the sequined pants to sparkle.

Looking very trim and fit, Linda regaled a packed, appreciative audience at Birdland on Monday, August 29. The bad news is that it was a one-night-only event, but Californians can look forward to her upcoming engagement at San Francisco's Plush Room with Billy Stritch, September 6 -18.

With the exception of a stint playing Rose in Gypsy, Linda's Broadway roles in recent years have been in non-musicals: Tale Of The Allergist's Wife, Broadway Bound, The Diary of Anne Frank and Hollywood Arms, as Carol Burnett's grandmother. In decidedly non-grandmotherly fashion, the energetic performer delivered big time Monday, vamping, strutting, flirting and mining laughs with consummate skill. Although she has an appealing, warm voice, it's not about the voice. She is not a consummate "singer" with a big range, but there are no limits to her ability to sell a song. One of the highlights of the show was a razzamatazzy "Rhode Island Is Famous for You" which used her skills to advantage: strutting across the stage to the Arthur Schwartz rhythms, directly addressing the audience, relishing the fun, and hitting every target on target in the clever Howard Dietz lyric ("Ain't the country lucky? New Jersey gives us (pause) glue." (rolls her eyes)).

photo: Maryann Lopinto
An opening medley of five songs about optimism, centered around the Gershwins' "Little Jazz Bird," acknowledged jazz in this jazz club as well as the night's mood. The perky, quirky tune is originally from Lady, Be Good but was interpolated in a 1960s revival of Oh, Kay! featuring Linda. The funny lady then began her friendly, chatty memory-fest, talking about her beginnings in club work back in the '60s where all the clubs she played were in basements with "Downstairs" as part of their name. Proclaiming her joy to return to these roots all these years later, at the famous nitery Birdland, she exulted, "Street level at last!" Also appropriate to the jazz venue, she scatted a bit and had some jazz-inflected moments. In this she was aided marvelously by a trio consisting of Billy Stritch on piano, her husband Steve Bakunas on drums, and Saadi Zain on bass. Each had a special turn to spotlight playing and playfulness. With Billy, she sang a cute duet of "Two Lost Souls" from Damn Yankees. With Steve, it was Cole Porter's rhetorical question "Do I Love You?" and then there was the lively "Back on Bass." That tune was written by David Shire, who was in the audience. With revisions each season by lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman, old friend Shire wrote the music for "New Girl In Town," the theme for the TV series Alice - also fun to hear again. Linda spoke gratefully, but concisely, about how the character in that show raised her awareness of women's issues and got her politically involved.

Although Linda didn't do anything from Gypsy, she did provide stories of her 1960s Broadway work and smashingly reprised a couple of stage songs she introduced. One was "The Boy From..." (by Mary Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim, from The Mad Show), showing her mastery of facial expressions for comic effect . Near the end of the act, she got to "You've Got Possibilities," the lively and brassy number from It's Bird, It's A Plane, It's Superman (Charles Strouse-Lee Adams).

Along the way in this program, generous in time and spirit, were some serious moments, such as "The Song Remembers When," a grown-up song which the act uses as a title. The Trisha Yearwood hit, by Hugh Prestwood, lets Linda talk about passages in her life. She also salutes her mother, an opera singer who gave up that career to raise Linda.

The show was presented, directed, aided and abetted by Jim Caruso. "We met doing a show for the Clinton Inaugural and state dinner. I was a gigantic fan of her theater and TV work," Jim told me. Speaking conspiratorially, "You know, we were able to sort of just wander around the White House and our jaws just dropped."

They bonded then and there, in the President's home. After Linda came to see Jim's night club act, he told her, "You should do this!" but she resisted, thinking it was "too much work" to put it together the way she'd want. "I'd want to be you," she told him, cementing their mutual admiration society. And for years, she'd go to shows and listen to songs and scribble titles on cocktail napkins and slips of paper and put them aside. "We became real friends," says exuberant Jim, "not 'fake show-business' friends." Jim became her director and they've been doing the show here and there, changing it around. "Making people feel great is Linda's M.O. You really get to know her. It's like being at a party at her house where she gets up and entertains."

Yes, entertaining is the key. You feel all the years of show biz savvy plus lots of heart as Linda Lavin shakes off a few decades and appears youthful but wise, not just funny but smart-funny, and an exhilarating presence. She even took a turn at the piano as her own accompanist. When the audience applauded, thinking a well-turned phrase meant the end of the song, she looked up, surprised, and said it wasn't over, then smiled and said cutely, "But thanks!" The thanks were felt by all, and we're also thankful she saved all those cocktail napkins with smart choices written down. Basically, this is a life-affirming, feel-good show from someone who has long felt like a real friend to many.

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