By Ron Fassler . . .

Feinstein’s/54 Below played host this past Sunday night to actress/singer Lisa Howard, Broadway veteran and part of the original cast of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (a personal favorite). This being so close to Christmas, and to happily coincide with her CD release of holiday music, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” Howard stayed on a seasonal track right up to the very end when she switched horses and opted for a show tune as an encore . . . but who cares when the song is Stephen Schwartz’s “Meadowlark?”

Howard’s clarion voice is richly smooth for someone with such powerhouse capabilities. Many Broadway belters (of which she is one of the best) can sometimes have difficulty adjusting to an intimate setting or a recording studio. But having listened to her recent CD, and seen her on stage, I can attest that hers is an instrument remarkably supple and adaptable. Backed by a great sounding band led by musical director and pianist Michael Sheib (who wrote one of Sunday evening’s songs), Howard’s charming presence lent a Christmastime cheer to the proceedings a full thirteen days ahead of the 25th of December.

In a twist on most cabaret acts, Howard scripted her show as one of those cheesy Hallmark or Lifetime Christmas movies with herself in the lead (she served as the narrator taking us through the entire plot line) with all the songs she sang turning into a full-fledged musical. For extra fun, the two men her character of “Lisa” has to choose between were played by Rob Lowe and Paul Rudd. Their heads, pasted on other people’s bodies, popped in a slide show that ran all evening long on two large screens on each side of the stage. Howard, photoshopping herself in, made for a cute idea, but it proved problematic as this became the format for the entire 70-minute set, with no let up. If it had played in the middle of the show for two or three songs, it might have been a lot funnier, as well as stronger dramatically, especially in that she robbed herself of any personal connection to the audience by singing every song in the character of “Lisa.” Predictably, with everything done within the context of a fake movie, it produced a fake result. It’s one of those ideas that must have sounded great in the room, only to prove less than ideal in practice. Even though there were laughs to be had, they came at the expense of a sameness that permeated the full length of the show.

It’s rare for a cabaret performer to eschew the personal and trade it in for a storyline that isn’t one’s own. We never heard about Howard’s private life or what she’s been through in these past two troubling years. Instead, we got a Hallmark movie that had nothing to do with her. That said, she certainly scored with her soaring voice on such songs as Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” Jerry Herman’s “We Need a Little Christmas” and Bill Finn’s “Infinite Joy,” which though not exactly a Christmas song, gave the audience exactly what they wanted—Howard wailing a terrific theatrical number.

Sean McDaniel, Michael Aarons and Alden Terry made up the rest of the band. And two backup singers, Madelaine Vandenberg and Madison Deadman, joined in for a bunch of songs. A top notch team like this makes me look forward to the next time Lisa Howard performs, hopefully sans any gimmicks. Truth be told, she’s talented enough not to have to rely on them.

Lisa Howard “What Christmas Means to Me” performed December 12 at Feinstein’s/54 Below (254 W 54th Street).

Photos: Ron Fassler