By Stephen Hanks
In 1922, the Winter Garden Theatre on London's Drury Lane staged a musical called The Cabaret Girl, with music by the already prominent and prolific Jerome Kern (with lyrics by George Grossmith and one of Kern's frequent early collaborators, P.G. Wodehouse). Ninety years later, Kern's contribution to American musical theater and the Great American Songbook is still alive and thriving thanks to the glorious vocal talent of contemporary musical theater stars like Rebecca Luker. Unfortunately, based on her latest tribute to Kern (July 6 and 7) at the new 54 Below, Luker could hardly be called a "cabaret girl" in the best and modern sense of the term. It's not that Luker wasn't wonderful at conveying Kern's melodies and the lyrics of his various collaborators. Her renditions of 16 Kern songs-some of which were more obscure pre-1920 ditties-were lovely and engaging. But as a complete nightclub performance, Luker's show was neither a compelling one-woman concert nor captivating cabaret.
The gloriously appointed 54 Below is being promoted as "Broadway's Nightclub," perhaps consciously avoiding the notion that it could also be considered a "cabaret room." But it's actually a beautiful hybrid of a small concert hall and a cabaret club. In the weeks since it opened in June, the room has boasted some big-name talent such as Patti LuPone and Brian d'Arcy James (with stars such as Ben Vereen and Marin Mazzie on deck), but having a celebrity performer just whisk through a barely one-hour song set as Luker did isn't enough. Although it was clear that the beautiful blond songstress pleased her fans and devotees on the first night of two-show run, an audience needs something more for forking over a $30-$40 cover and $20-plus minimum-more insight into the composer and the music, more audience interaction, more humor, anything that could have transformed the performance into a great cabaret show. It was difficult to discern what Luker's director Danny Burnstein actually directed other than having her straddle a stool on one song or mounting Musical Director Joseph Thalken's piano on another.
For more than 20 years, Lukor has been one of those go-to leading-lady musical theater sopranos, playing endearing heroines like Marian in The Music Man, Christine in Phantom, Magnolia in Showboat, and Maria in The Sound of Music. The confectionery nature of her voice transcends eras. In fact, in one of the better conversational bits during the second half of the show, Luker related that Kern's daughter once told Luker she had the kind of voice Kern loved writing for. "I feel at home when I'm singing Jerome Kern songs. In fact I feel this next song was written for me," Luker said before segueing into the beautiful ballad "I'm Old Fashioned."
Musical theater historian Robert Kimball and sheet music maven Michael Lavine attended the first show and likely appreciated Luker's foray into early Kern with the angelic ballad "Land Where the Good Songs Go" (from the 1917 musical Oh Boy), "Not You" (another ballad, this one from the 1918 show Rock-a-bye Baby), which had a faint similarity to "Someone to Watch Over Me" (George Gershwin was that show's rehearsal pianist), and the fun "Saturday Night" (from the 1918 show Miss Springtime), a clever Wodehouse lyric about a virtuous girl who is ready for some canoodling by the weekend. Luker's Showboat medley of the classics "Bill" and "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" were sweet, if not spectacular, as was the Kern/Dorothy Fields standard "The Way You Look Tonight." Luker didn't quite convey the sarcastic humor behind the Irene Franklin lyric in "My Husband's First Wife," nor did she capture the sensuality in "I'll Be Hard to Handle" (from the 1932 musical Roberta), delivering it more like a sweet Ginger Rogers from the 1935 movie than as a sexy Ann Miller, who did the number in the 1952 film Lovely to Look At.