By Rob Lester
Swirling onto the stage at Feinstein's at Loews Regency, looking radiant and resplendent, Raissa Katona Bennett began her mostly conservative trip through Jerome Kern Land with grace and a fond smile on her face. Combining "The Song Is You" with the show's title, "Can't Help Singing" was the first of several song pairings. Of course, that's a common method when one wants to get more of a prolific songwriter's work into one show. These double scoops featured mostly familiar tunes. There was a longish medley of others bookended by the tale of temptation versus self-control, "She Didn't Say Yes."
She didn't say yes to resisting the urge to be coy here in the spirit of the song (and again later) by leaving the stage to sing to ringsiders with what passes for harmless pseudo-flirtation and winking. This caused her to have her back to a considerable section of the very packed crowd, shutting out some, but hopefully, connecting with others. But what about connecting to the lyrics, and the stories and mindsets presented in the songs, too? The choice in this show, directed by Eric Michael Gillett, seemed to be to glide serenely on the frozen pond of melodies rather find any churning rivers of emotion by digging into words and present deep personal perspective. Significantly, the act named composer Kern in its subtitle, putting the focus on the melodies. There are plenty of great ones created by this master of theatre and movie songs from the first part of the twentieth century, who died in 1945.
So many of these melodies --- at least in their original versions --- were on the formal or rather elegant side. Some of the lyrics supplied by Oscar Hammerstein and Otto Harbach are on the formal or poetic end, too (think of "Why Do I Love You?" with "Why should there be two happy as we?" and "Can you see the why or wherefore I should be the one you care for?" or "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" with "So I chaffed them and I gaily laughed".) Raissa Katona Bennett is a soprano who can project elegance and formality without making them only distancing, dusty museum pieces. With such songs that could be the most stiff and stuffy and stodgy, she found a way to make them more conversational. For those satisfied with glorying in the presentational approach of gorgeous melody lines and the lush, idealized romanticism, maybe this approach is "enough." There were times when she seemed more reflective, even wistful, but smiling dominated --- and what a glowing smile she has! As "The Way You Look Tonight" goes, "Oh, but you're lovely, with your smile so warm."
Not presenting the material chronologically and hardly overloaded with biographical material about Kern, there were still some tidbits about his work habits and personality. Her patter focused more on her own life as a contented, still-in-love wife to set up love songs and had a reality check about the magic of show business with a couple of numbers from the much-sampled master work Show Boat. Convincing in presenting herself as self-acceptingly content with "I'm Old Fashioned," the singer's real charm and warm-and-fuzzy came through. Songs set in lower keys allowed for more communication while still letting a melody line's occasional high notes be high points that were well executed.
Gifted musical director/pianist Don Rebic, played with subtlety and warmth, deepening some numbers. Not having more spotlight on his prodigious piano skills via lengthier solos seemed a crime, but he made a rare vocal contribution with great charm. Duetting with the cheery ode to cheery optimism, "Pick Yourself Up," he sang in a light, disarming and notably relaxed manner. It was a surprise highlight. Another unique moment was the first part of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," with a welcome showcase for the other musician on the date: Tom Hubbard. We got to really listen to and appreciate his considerable skill as he set a cool vibe, with Rebic snapping his fingers and Raissa briefly jumping into a more laidback mode.
On "I'll Be Hard to Handle," she flexed her comic and assertive muscles somewhat, with a wink, but generally through the night showed herself to be a gracious and glamorous hostess of song.
For more information on the performer, see www.raissa.info
and the feature article in the January/February issue of Cabaret Scenes