by: Brian Scott Lipton
It’s been over 50 years since Linda Lavin was the new kid in town, but in “Starting Over,” her often thrilling new show at 54 Below, this Tony Award-winning performer seems to be working hard to make a good impression on the audience (which on opening night included such luminaries as Michele Lee, John Glover, and Phyllis Newman).
She hardly needs to bother. Odds are, they already love her – from stage or television. And if they didn’t already, she’d win them over quickly with her opening patter about her childhood in Portland, Maine and an eclectic medley of songs that range from “Where or When” to “I Hear Music.”
Lavin spans quite a musical gamut in her 80-minute set with surprising ease, including brilliant renditions of her two Broadway “hits,” Mary Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim’s tongue-twisting “The Boy From” (from “The Mad Show”) and Charles Strouse and Lee Adams’ enchanting “Possibilities” (from “It’s A Bird… It’s A Plane… It’s Superman”), as well as equally persuasive takes on Steely Dan’s defiant “Black Cow,” Michel Legrand and Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s bittersweet “You Must Believe in Spring,” Antonio Carlos Jobim’s hopeful “No More Blues,” and Nancy Hamilton and Morgan Lewis’ swinging “How High the Moon”. She even shows off her own impressive skill as a piano player on a medley of “But Beautiful” and “I Walk a Little Faster.”
Still, “Starting Over” is anything but a solo show; rarely has a cabaret artist been so generous with her band members. Musical director Billy Stritch delivers a devastating version of the standard “A Cottage for Sale” and joins Lavin on a joyous medley devoted to the late Bobby Short. Drummer Steve Bakunas – who is also Lavin’s husband – gets to display his vocal chops on “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” and violin virtuoso Aaron Weinstein drops in for the final third of the show, getting his own scintillating solo on “After You’ve Gone.” (Guitarist Ron Affif and bassist Tom Hubbard also make major musical contributions). Moreover, she encourages the audience to take part in her penultimate number, Lerner & Loewe’s “Almost Like Being in Love,” which she had earlier revealed was her audition song when in high school.
Even when her voice is a tad wobbly, Lavin’s dramatic and comic instincts make up for the deficit. (I can’t wait to see her on stage in a few months in Richard Greenberg’s “Our Mother’s Brief Affair”). Indeed, her ultimate professionalism and consummate skill is why Lavin has succeeded in starting over and over and over and always finishing first.
Linda Lavin: Starting Over is at 54 Below (254 West 54th Street) through June 6. Visit www.54Below.com for information.