Katharine McPhee Wins Laughs, Standing Ovations at Café Carlyle

Written by | Stage

Katharine McPhee

Pianist Michael Orland and chanteuse Katharine McPhee in performance at the Café Carlyle. Photo by David Andrako.

How was the American Idol and Smash songbird received during her sold-out run at this storied venue?

Some performers are not a good fit for the Café Carlyle. Some are intimidated by how close they the crowd is or have hang-ups about whether their musical style is right for a space where so many have sung the greatest hits of Broadway and the shining standards of the American songbook. Some have trouble sounding at ease with their between-song patter or find themselves thrown by occasional clink of silverware on plates or waiters passing with a tray. But Katharine McPhee was made for this space.

In her Café Carlyle debut, McPhee gave audiences everything they could ask for, delivering fresh takes on a collection of well-loved songs, confidently engaging in the kind of vocal acrobatics that lead many performers astray but are thrilling when properly executed. From the moment she ascended to the stage, McPhee’s voice was as delightful as one might expect from a woman who nearly won American Idol and starred in Smash, the iconic (if all too brief) show about the making of Broadway shows.

What you might not expect is that McPhee is a natural comedienne — busting out with off-the-cuff quips at every turn. “Well this is intimate,” she commented after squeezing through the crowd and up onto the stage. To the front table (inches from her), she snarked, “You can tell me if I have anything in my nose, and I can have a sip of your drink.” At one point, she turned to the piano to hold up a copy of her new album of love songs, and it wasn’t there. “Someone didn’t do what I told them to,” she sing-songed, followed abruptly by: “YOU’RE FIRED!” and then: “Just kidding…” Later, she noticed a drink awaiting her. “Thank God a cocktail arrived,” she said, taking a sip. “Oh, GOD!” she exclaimed as she realized it’s a strong one. In terms of laughs, McPhee also offers an able Celine Dion impression. And, after an evening during which she realized that her sparkling, long-sleeved ensemble left her sweltering under the stage lights, she joked: “Thank you for coming tonight. Tomorrow, I’m going to be wearing a bikini.”

Fans more interested in McPhee’s career than her comedy have plenty to cheer for. She offered a rendition of “God Bless the Child” — the audition song that got her on what she described as “the show that introduced me to the American public,” Idol. “Did anyone watch me on that?” she asks, and the audience applauds enthusiastically. “I still meet people who tell me, ‘I voted for you!’” she mused. “I guess I owe them something.” Idol’s influence can also be felt in the presence of musical director Michael Orland at the piano, whom McPhee met during the show’s Hollywood Week, and her encore is a rendition of “Somewhere Under the Rainbow” much like the one that garnered her many a vote on the show. McPhee also offered some behind-the-scenes tid-bits, explaining how Idol contestants download a tremendous amount of music in the hopes that they’ll find a song that fits the theme and their voices and may be cleared for performance. She performs “Everything Must Change,” a leftover selection from those heady days, and though it may never have been cleared for broadcast on Fox, it is a highlight of the night at the Carlyle — including a heartstopping crescendo near the end that evoked audible gasps from the audience.

Other big hits of the night include a jazzy rendition of “Sooner or Later” from Dick Tracy that makes Madonna’s recording sound rather thin by comparison and finds McPhee gamely sauntering into the audience to tease a gentleman or two in their seats. And though she does not perform any of the original songs from Smash, she does offer a solo take on “That’s Life”, a song that Karen (McPhee’s character) and Ivy (her rival) sing when they finally decide to make peace.

Most of the evening is drawn from McPhee’s recently-released album I Fall in Love Too Easily. She insists that the title track is “just fact” when it comes to describing her. In keeping with that theme, she gamely offers some fairly intimate scenes from her love life. She describes herself as “born with a boyfriend,” name-checks her preschool crush, describes a break-up (a very efficient use of a bridge), and mentions that she’s been single for two years ever since splitting with a fellow cast member on her current TV show Scorpion. Initially McPhee says she set out to create an album “people would want to make out to;” now she admits that the results may be more of an album “people will want to listen to on a rainy day with a glass of wine — or a bottle.”

Regardless of whether the album makes for ideal smooching music, the tracks McPhee sings from it at the Carlyle are real crowd pleasers. And as McPhee made her final exit of the night, the entire room jumped to its feet — the only standing ovation I’ve ever witnessed at the Café Carlyle. True, some performers may just not be made for the Carlyle, but McPhee most definitely is.

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Last modified: December 6, 2017

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