By Eric J. Grimm
The lights are low, the pisco sours are flowing, and a receptive audience is waiting to watch you reinvent yourself. That’s almost always the scene at Café Carlyle, where the one-hit pop wonder or actor of yesteryear invites you to reconsider them as a singer of standards and a storyteller. Katharine McPhee, who was the runner up on her season of American Idol, has a new album of jazz covers produced by Don Was, and the Carlyle is the perfect venue for her to unleash her newfound musical freedom, albeit one that she admits during her set is shockingly intimate for her with Michael Orland on piano/musical director, Ray Marchica on drums and Marc Schmied on bass.
Intimacy indeed seems unfamiliar for McPhee, who was 21 when she skyrocketed to national recognition on the then most popular show on television. She languished as a pop singer for five years before endearing herself to musical theater junkies on the cult-favorite NBC show Smash. More recently, she’s spent four seasons as a lead on Scorpion, the kind of CBS crime procedural that no one in New York watches, but likely pays her bills in a major way owing to popularity everywhere else in America.
So here she is in a sold out run at the Carlyle letting everyone know that she will never make a pop record again and would like to be considered an expert interpreter of timeless songs from Cahn, Porter, Loewe, and Sondheim, with a particular focus on songs that Frank Sinatra performed. The title track of the album, I Fall in Love Too Easily, is a self-professed nod to her tumultuous romances, which have been the stuff of tabloid dreams for the past five years. While she indicates that the set will be an evening of exploring her love life, she doesn’t offer much in the way of either revealing or cryptic information about her personal life. She lives publicly enough and is certainly entitled to maintain whatever level of privacy she sees fit, but at the Carlyle, she at least needs to tell her story through music.
McPhee is such a precise performer, that it’s hard to learn anything about her in her interpretations of classics. She changes the gender on “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” to “his face” but in her version, it could easily be anyone’s face. She shows flares of personality on “Everything Must Change,” famously recorded by Nina Simone, and a half-joking performance of “All the Way,” in which she does a solid Celine Dion impersonation. Her renditions feel more laser-cut than soulful.
The vast majority of the set feels like McPhee singing her favorite songs at karaoke. Not to underplay her obvious talent and well-rehearsed executions of these songs, it’s darn good karaoke.
Photos: David Andrako
Katharine McPhee is playing at Café Carlyle 35 East 76 Street at Madison Ave.
Through November 25th.