It’s possible that Linda Lavin, Billy Stritch and company are having too much fun to sing one song at a time in their delightful new residency.
Linda Lavin pauses for a moment to to take in the positive energy pouring from the audience as she glides to the stage of the Café Carlyle — and then proceeds to deliver it right back. Dressed in a pantsuit with almost as much sparkle as herself, Lavin is a consummate entertainer — with more shimmy in her shoulders and shaking in her caboose than one would expect of a woman who’s eighty years young.
“How does she do it?” I’ll later wonder aloud.
“She’s never stopped,” my seatmate cannily replies — and it’s true that, while she’ll be forever known for her nearly-decade-long stint as the title character in the sitcom Alice, Lavin has had a massive career that includes a great deal of work on the New York stage (including he lead in Charles Busch’s hit The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife). This helps explain why she has such reverence for the Carlyle, which she describes as “this iconic, historic, thrilling, sexy, glorious room.” It also might explain how she got mixed up with master musician Billy Stritch (known for sharing his voice and expertise at the keys with the likes of Christine Ebersole and Liza Minnelli.)
Lavin describes Stritch as the brother she never had, mentioning that they met at a party and have been making music together ever since. They’ve performed versions of tonight’s show all over the country, and both their ease with each other and impressively-delivered close harmony is a testament to that familiarity. “This is like being in our living room,” Lavin remarks. “Just a few more guests than I ever expected to come to dinner.”
It’s one of many times Lavin cracks wise over the evening — often off the cuff. In introducing a parody of the Astrid Gilberto hit “The Boy from Ipanema,” she makes a point of asking, “Are You Here Astrid?” Silence. “Good.” Lavin goes on to say that Mary Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim wrote the parody to allow Lavin to make fun what she refers to as Gilberto’s “flat affect.” If you haven’t heard the number, I won’t spoil it other than to say that Lavin delivers its unlikely twists and turns with a comedic deadpan that had me laughing until I cried and that it contains the lyrics: “Why are his trousers vermillion? Why do his friends call him Lillian?”
“One of the things I want to do tonight is tell you my story,” Lavin says, but in truth the evening is far less biographical than many such cabaret turns as Lavin seems more interested in making music than providing biographical frames for each song. She does nod to women who’ve inspired her, including her mother — which leads to, among other things, an opportunity for Lavin to do her adept Judy Garland impression. Other great musical ladies Lavin calls out include “Rosie” Clooney, Peggy Lee and Doris Day. When they last of these was met with applause from one fervent audience member, Lavin quips, “That’s great — that there’s someone here old enough to remember her.” She also says, “It would be impossible for me to play this palace without honoring the man who was its king, Bobby Short.” It’s by way of introducing a medley of Short’s songs and also a lovely way of allowing Lavin to reveal that Short’s music “got me through my freshman year and gave me the courage to think I might make something of myself in this business.”
Though one gets the feeling Lavin could sing ‘em all and stay all night (even taking to the piano to accompany herself at one point), she is eager to share the stage. She duets with both Stritch and her husband, drummer Steve Bakunas. She offers great moments for guitarist Ron Affif and bassist Tom Hubbard to riff. And she welcomes to the stage the impressive young violinist Aaron Weinstein, who — in addition of accompanying on a number of songs — get a moment to really let loose solo near the end of the set on a rendition of “After You’re Gone” with an ending that is so awesome and unexpected that “virtuosic” isn’t an adequate term to describe it. Lavin and the boys have such momentum that they often end up singing two songs at once, leading to fun mashups like “I’ve Got My Eyes on You/ You Do Something to Me”, “Why Don’t You Do Right/Black Cow”, and “Let’s Get Lost/Let’s Eat Home,” which offer surprising juxtapositions.
“I came back to New York after several months in LA doing a series that didn’t get picked up — so now I get to stay home,” Lavin confesses toward the end of the evening. “That’s what this song is about.” And though it gets a nice laugh from the audience as she launches into a spirited rendition “No More Blues,” I think this really is a happy homecoming for her. If seeing her in her element at the Café Carlyle proves anything, it’s that — as much as we enjoy her work on Hollywood screens big and small — Linda Lavin is a citizen of the stage, meant to look audiences right in the face and make us laugh, cry and shimmy right along with her.
Linda Lavin with Billy Stritch will be performing Tuesdays through Saturdays at the Cafe Carlyle through May 19. For available tickets and show times.
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Last modified: June 19, 2018