Kathleen Turner Offers a Thrilling Musical Autobiography at Café Carlyle

Written by | Entertainment, Stage

kathleen turner smiling and holding head in surprise

Kathleen Turner offers a night of stories and song that just may be the most moving performance of her career.

Many performers begin a performance at the Café Carlyle by noting what a thrill it is to play such a historic space. After taking the stage to a crowd that was positively freaking out after an recording of famous lines from her film roles, Kathleen Turner began with: “So, the Carlyle, huh? Yeah, alright. F**k it. Let’s do it.” She did go on to namecheck a few other stars who she’s seen play the room. “Bobby Short, Barbara Cook, Dixie Carter – all these wonderful singers… and me. What were you thinking?” she says, earning a raucous laugh. “I’ll explain.”

A few years back, a colleague asked Turner if she sang — in the hopes of getting her on board for a revival of the Brecht play-with-music Mother Courage and Her Children. In Turner’s ingenue days, she explained, “to sing” was to offer a traditional, flute-like soprano, so her stock answer had been, “I don’t sing; I act.” But times and musical tastes have changed, and once she’d put in a great deal of work getting her musical chops in gear for Mother Courage, it was a natural step to continue exploring her singing prowess.

The result was a show (which she performed in London before bringing it to the Carlyle) in which Turner brings every bit of her magnificent stage presence and fabulous acting ability to remarkable renditions and reinventions of songs, including classics from the American songbook (and a few less familiar tunes). What makes the star’s delivery so powerful – in addition to her unmistakable smooth-as-fine-scotch voice – is that, for Turner, lyrics are never there merely to deliver the melody. With “Since I Fell for You,” she reached out to accuse specific patrons of making her leave her happy home. Any sentence that ended with a question was posed to an individual members of the audience as though an answer were expected. With “Sweet Kentucky Ham”, she brought us with her to the homesick weariness of life on the road. With “The Street Where You Live” (reimagined as a lullaby), she invited us into her home on West 10th Street as she rocked her then-infant daughter to sleep. (I was seated two tables down from said daughter – now all grown up – and she seems totally cool, by the way.)

Musical director, arranger and pianist Mark Janas is to be praised for creating a flawless frame for this performance. Not only did songs last exactly the right amount of time for maximum emotional impact and accompaniments embrace strategic silences to highlight specific moments, but he also sprinkled in delightful bits of songs not even performed in the show that added a bit of extra fairy dust to the stories Turner told.

And what stories they are! Turner informed us that the “rules of cabaret” dictate that she start at the beginning. “We’ll see how long I stick to those f**king rules!” she said with a laugh. (Turner’s frequent dropping of f-bombs are an utter delight.) But she actually does follow the rules — starting with tales of a childhood spent making her way from Canada to Missouri to Cuba to London and back to Missouri due to her father’s career in the foreign service and subsequent untimely passing.

an animated kathleen turner

Turner takes us from her days of finding refuge in the theater in her youth, then on into her storied film career, including how she strategically set out to prove that she could be sexy (Body Heat), funny (The Man with Two Brains), and vulnerable (Romancing the Stone). She also offered some choice behind-the-scene moments with entertainment greats — e.g. trading barbs with Francis Ford Coppola on the set of Peggy Sue Got Married and convincing Edward Albee that she was meant to take on the role of Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Both musical and emotional highlights come in the form of Sondheim’s “Live Alone and Like It” — traditionally an ode to being a swinging single — which Turner delivers a winking celebration to the finding joy in one’s life after a divorce; William Finn’s great (traditionally gay) lovesong “Sailing,” which had me weeping from start to finish; “Send in the Clowns,” which has not felt so fresh and powerful since Bernadette Peters reimagined it in the 2009 revival of A Little Night Music; and a closing mashup of Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Good-Bye” and Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do.”

The evening also included some of Turner’s trademark political fervor. “We live in bad, ugly, evil times, and I am so freaked out. The poor are voting against themselves! But politics are not about right and left; they’re about up and down,” Turner said — paraphrasing Molly Ivins. This leads to a story about Turner encountering Ivins and Texas Governor Ann Richards in an elevator, which is hilarious and gives Turner a chance to show off her delicious Southern accent. Turner also references her work with City Meals on Wheels, People for the American Way and Planned Parenthood, the last of which segueways into a beautiful song by Steve Schalchlin and James Freeman called “In This Town” about a woman orienting a volunteer on her first day at a clinic.

Turner’s own health issues are also addressed — from her first symptoms on the set of Serial Mom through their scary escalation, a series of doctors unable to offer a cause, her eventual diagnosis with Rheumatoid Arthritis, and the accidental encounter that led her to an experimental drug trial that finally enabled her to fight the disease and regain her mobility. Ultimately, Turner ended up healthy enough to head back to the stage in The Graduate in London’s West End (where she forged a delightful bond with Dame Maggie Smith). Initially, Turner told us, she did not want to take the show to Broadway because “Americans are so f**ked up about sex.” Then one day she saw a casting call for a female character who was “37 but still attractive,” and it so incensed her that she decided she needed to be nude on Broadway at 48. (Brava, Ms. Turner!)

One often leaves a night at the Carlyle giddy with the thrill of it all — the ambiance of the historic venue; the joy of performances suffused with music and laughter; the excitement of proximity to a celebrity. But after Kathleen Turner’s amazing performance, I felt more as though I had attended a great night of theater — one that had taken me through the full gamut of human emotion: excitement and romance, laughter and tears. I paused on the way out of the building, near the elevators where Turner was waiting to head up to her room; I was still wiping away tears from her last number (after joining the audience in delivering her not one but two standing ovations). Out of the corner of my eye, I could swear she took notice of these tears and nodded at me with the smile of someone who knew that – if her job was to move an audience – that she had done her job very well indeed.

Kathleen Turner will perform Tuesdays through Saturdays at the Cafe Carlyle through June 2. Available tickets and show times are on ticketweb.

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Last modified: June 19, 2018