The only thing you can really assume about Rebecca Luker's night club act is that you'll get some truly beautiful soprano singing since she's one of the most employed sopranos in musical theater. Don't make too many bets beyond that. You might assume that since it's two weeks before Christmas, you'd get a cluster of holiday songs. No, she announces that she's going to be our respite from the ubiquitous holiday songs. (I wonder if she knows that Christmas tunes are piped into the bathrooms at The Regency.) She decided to do a show of material written (or co-written) by women. That means no selections from most of her Broadway turns (leads in Show Boat, The Music Man, Nine, The Sound of Music, The Phantom of the Opera) or studio cast albums like Brownstone. Her first album was all Cole Porter songs, so that's out and she did a song here and there on composer albums (all male: Sondheim, The Sherman Brothers, Bob Ost). That leaves the logical choice of her gem of a second album, 2004's Leaving Home where half the songs have women as writers. Wrong again! She sings none of them.
The theme frees Rebecca from leaning on the material that many of her fans will have heard and also lets us focus on and appreciate the work of women writers. Of course, none of this would matter if the idea didn't result in an entertaining show - it does! Looking and sounding vibrant, the vocalist reels off one song after another, with easy grace and glorious tones. She works with Joseph Thalken on piano and Dick Sarpola on bass. They're strong, but don't get a real chance to shine on their own. The arrangements are not showy or intricate, and truly it's the lyrics and the story of the songs taking center stage much of the time.
You know the voice is there. It's a given. It's a reliable instrument with beauty, purity of tone and power. No need to worry about her struggling or coasting or faking her way through.
Opening with "The Best is Yet to Come" is a friendly hello, with smiles of greeting flashed to each section of the audience. Though it's a feel-good opener, it is actually one of the least interesting moments. A bit forceful, but jazzy, and sung in her chest voice, it doesn't hint at the more rewarding and dramatic numbers ahead. This Carolyn Leigh lyric (music by Cy Coleman) is always good to hear, but her final work, "Killing Time," with Jule Styne's melody gives an actress something to more to bite into. It's a devastating view of being at a loss of how to fill the hours after a break-up. Rebecca doesn't shy away from the stark loneliness that echoes through the song, but could probably take it a step deeper for a even more wrenching effect. A similar theme is explored in "Out of Love," by Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler, a great writing team. Rebecca also takes on their "The Last Song," a hilarious character number in which the character insists this is really her last attempt to communicate with an ex-lover ("This is the last e-mail; I'm taking you off my Buddy List"). Rebecca is not famous for being a comedienne, as she's been cast as the sincere ingenue/ leading lady, but she shows flair for comedy here and in a stressed mom's lament, "The Noises That Joy Makes," with its tale of Cheerios flying and kids who won't go to sleep. It cues Rebecca to mention her life with actor-singer Danny Burstein and her step-children, but she shares little and it's not the kind of show where you feel you've gotten to know the performer very well. Unpretentious? Yes. Revealing? Not really.
The center of the act and the most exciting and involving moments are when she's most emotionally involved and invested. Or maybe I should say when her character is. Rebecca Luker is a singing actress and when she becomes a character in a specific time and mindset, something special happens. When the melody allows her to soar and the notes climb, and it's matched with intelligent, emotion-based lyrics, "special" borders on thrilling. Songs co-written by Beth Blatt give her characters to work with, specific details and grown-up struggles to act. She succeeds and connects with the audience. "When You Start," a collaboration with Jenny Giering is especially touching and a Blatt/ Jeff Blumenkrantz song, "Lovely Lies," lets Rebecca play on her down-home roots as a woman trying to find her way in the world after being raised in a traditional Southern family. In these and other numbers, the performer finds many non-verbal ways to communicate, react and underscore feelings: a slight shrug of the shoulder on the word "perhaps," a new look coming into her eyes when her character focuses on part of a painting, leaning in to convince the unseen mother she addresses, and tensing up or relaxing her facial muscles ever so subtly.
Rebecca's great Broadway role that was written by women (Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman's The Secret Garden) is called upon, and she sounds sensational in its pleading and pure "Come to My Garden," and the strong and dramatic "How Could I Ever Know?" Rebecca and her director, Mark Waldrop, are wise enough to know that a breather from intensity is needed. The hip and charming "I Wouldn't Trade You" by Jessica Molaskey and John Pizzarelli, fits the bill; the playfully affectionate song brought appreciative laughter for its nifty rhymes, especially the references to New York City. Trotting back to the stage for encores, the singer dropped the theme and said she'd do a holiday song - and that it was written by a man. No, not that holiday: the next one: "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" by Frank Loesser. The night I attended (Tuesday), she asked the audience if they wanted another ballad or an "up" song. "Ballad!!" was the cry and she favored us with an excellent one, "Time," written by her musical director/pianist Joseph Thalken and Barry Kleinbort, from their musical, Was, impressive and satisfying. No histrionics or diva attitude, no sense of danger, it's not about flash. Rebecca Luker's act is not a musical tightrope walk, it's a lovely ride with a lovely lady.
Rebecca Luker plays Wednesday December 14 at 8:30pm, and Thursday December 15 at 8:30pm at Feinstein's at the Regency, 540 Park Avenue, at East 60th Street. For more information, visit www.feinsteinsattheregency.com. For tickets, visit TicketWeb.com.
For other holiday season concerts, see Rob's Holiday Happenings column.