By MARILYN LESTER**** The byword for Rita Wilson’s return to the Café Carlyle is “ageless.” Not only does the singer-songwriter and actress look “too marvelous for words,” with a beauty that belies calendar years, but her material is equally modern. Add to that a persona that’s bright and vivacious. The voice is husky, but also youthful – the type of voice with a steady range that’s perfect for her chosen contemporary style.
Wilson’s set is taken from her new album, Rita Wilson, scheduled to debut in 2018. The work is soft rock and country-rock oriented, comprised mainly of her own compositions in various collaborations. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable show of tuneful music with lyrics worth hearing. “New Girl,” for instance, written with Emily Shackelton, is a searing, penetrating commentary on infidelity in marriage. With acting chops front and center, Wilson put the song across with depth, shooting an arrow straight to the heart. But there’s plenty of cheerfulness, too. Her first three numbers are bouncy rock tunes, “Along for the Ride” (with Annie Bosko), “Big City Small Town Girl” (with Bosko and Johan Lindbrant), and “Bigger Picture” (with Bosko and Danny Myrick).
Wilson likes eclecticism and this body of work reflects that preference. Several of the songs are country-influenced, a genre Wilson says has the best stories. Storytelling is important to her – an awareness she brings to her composing, backed by years of acting. The lyrics are straightforward, often clever. “Pay Me in Wine” (with Kristian Bush, Kara DioGuardi, Liz Rose, MoZella and Mitch Allen) is a humorous take on a barfly with a talent for listening to other people’s stories. Wilson’s narrative, a free flow of personal thoughts and reminiscences, can be subtly pointed – in a nice way. She’s sweet and also sassy and frequently funny. Even with an intense personal story about a health crisis a few years ago, she turns what was devastating then into a work of wry humor now. The lady is droll, and her “Throw Me a Party” (with Bush and Rose) is an upbeat number about how she decided she wants to be remembered when she’s gone — some day far away, of course. On the serious side, she offers “You’re Not the Boss of Me” (with Jeffrey Trott), a song she says is about “resistance,” and relevant to today’s news cycle.
Backing Wilson is an outstanding quartet of musicians, including Brian Dunne on drums, Lee Nadel on bass guitar, and Alex Navarro on piano, keyboards, and acoustic guitar. Navarro also provided some backing vocals. Sharing center stage with Wilson, Andrew Doolittle, on acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin and ukulele, provided consequential backing vocals. Harmonies on several of the numbers were extremely well-balanced and pleasing to the ear. (Dunne, Navarro, Wilson, Doolittle and Nadel are pictured L to R in the photo.)
Rita Wilson is at the Café Carlyle. East 76th Street at Madison Avenue through October 21. Performances Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8:45 PM and there’s an additional show on Saturdays at 10:45 PM. Weekday pricing begins at $90 per person / Bar Seating: $75 / Premium Seating: $140. Weekend pricing begins at $110 per person / Bar Seating: $85 / Premium Seating: $160. Reservations can be made by phone at 212-744-1600 or online via Ticketweb.