by Martha Wade Steketee
Linda Lavin is a New York City girl who holds audiences rapt by comedic and dramatic performances on television, film, and stage. What cabaret lovers have discovered over the years is that that she brings all her performance skills and a now-burnished vocal instrument to storytelling in a cabaret setting.
This evening, in the 15-year-old weekly “Broadway at Birdland” series hosted by Jim Caruso, Lavin is joined by several musicians including singer and keyboard master Billy Stritch, her handsome husband Steve Bakunas on drums, Tom Hubbard on bass, and Aaron Weinstein with his jazz violin.
Lavin introduces the evening as both planned and off-the-cuff, to include “stories of my life with the music I’ve grown up with and the women who inspired me.” What we are presented are stories from movies that she loves, stories about (if not always tunes as performed by) performers including Judy Garland and Sylvia Sims, an arrangement Rosemary Clooney once taught her, and always, with sadness and resolution and love through the wisdom of age, the memory of her intense, omnipresent, judgmental mother. Lavin takes us through tears, laughs, sighs of recognition, recollection of familiar tunes, and introductions to tunes less familiar.
Some masterfully assembled medleys animate her set list, beginning with an inviting blend of Cole Porter ballads. “I’ve Got My Eyes on You” starts at a sweet solemn pace that segues into a jazzy, sexy “You Do Something to Me.” The Ira Gershwin lyrics and George Gershwin melody of “Shall We Dance” sets a dreamy tone in another medley. Everything slows to a delectable crawl in this arrangement, with melodies and harmonies stripped to their essence.
Lavin’s delectable camaraderie with Billy Stritch at the keyboard calls up other vocalist and pianist teams such as Judy Garland and Mort Lindsey. Broadway Baby Lavin dips into her own back catalogue for “You’ve Got Possibilities” (Charles Strouse and Lee Adams) from 1969’s It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman. And there’s infectious joy in her rhythmic responses to Stritch at the keys in the lyrically virtuosic tune by Mary Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim (as Esteban Ria Nido) “The Boy From” that Lavin introduced in the 1966 show The Mad Show. (“The Boy from Tacarembo la Tumbe del Fuego Santa Malipas Zacatecas la Junta del Sol y Cruz.”)
She calls out Rosemary Clooney’s tutelage for her approach to the tune “I’m Checking Out, Goodbye.” There’s some joy in the homage, and the revelation that Lavin’s strength may not be the scat she plays around with in the core of this tune. She does play thrillingly with Aaron Weinstein on the jazz violin in the George and Ira Gershwin classic “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and builds with him to a thrilling vocal scat-instrumental duet that brings to mind the interplay of vocalist Cleo Laine and her saxophonist husband John Dankworth.
At several points, Lavin takes well-deserved breaks for the band to play with purely instrumental sequences. A purely instrumental sequence that evoked, without mentioning her, the memory of Judy Garland—a percussive, purely instrumental, driving, and glorious “Get Happy” featuring tom-tom drum and violin.
For the emotional core of the show, Lavin takes over at the piano. She tells stories of her mother, and opera singer with “a brief but dazzling career,” who tried to push Lavin into classic music. Lavin hated practice but loved to play piano by ear and was drawn to musicals and ballads of older singers. She recalls singing “Secret Love” at 13 at a school assembly where they didn’t get her, but “I thought I WAS Judy Garland.” Cole Porter underscores a key musical memory—a 12-year-old Lavin singing at a Manhattan bar mitzva, for her classmates, “So in Love” from Kiss Me, Kate. She heard applause that thrilled her, and was uncomfortable with her mother’s rare public, enthusiastic, post-performance embrace and accolades. We feel this moment along with her, as therapists, audience members, and friends. “I was embarrassed, I was twelve, but tonight I’m proud.”
Pride and wit and wisdom and tears and history all on a cabaret stage, as it should be.
Linda Lavin—“My Second Farewell Concert” took place Monday, July 24 at 7pm at Birdland (315 West 44th Street). www.birdlandjazz.com
Photos: Stephen Sorokoff