REVIEW: Rita Wilson at Cafe Carlyle

Written by | Miscellaneous

You know Rita Wilson: Movie Star. Now meet Rita Wilson: Singer-Songwriter.

By Paul Hagen

Photo by David Andrako

Photo by David Andrako

You know her in rom-com roles from Sleepless in Seattle to It’s Complicated. She also plays Marnie’s overbearing mom on HBO’s Girls. And if you’re not familiar with the identity of her husband from their many trips together down red carpets — in the words of Rita Wilson: “Just picture Tom Hanks.” But even if you’ve seen Ms. Wilson on screens big and small, there’s a good chance you haven’t yet met her as a musician. Judging from her current gig at the Cafe Carlyle, she would like you to get to know her better in this capacity.

Without a doubt, you’ll still get plenty of “Rita Wilson: Movie Star” during her residency. She glitters as she takes the stage — her fitted black ensemble offering just the right amount of light-catching sparkle, her hair falling in golden waves. Wilson delivers between-song patter with the confidence of a seasoned stand-up, littering it with the kind of self-deprecating references designed to make audiences relate to the enviably rich and famous. Her comedy skills get a particularly good workout during her cover of The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face When I’m with You”, which — when framed with a story about Wilson getting Botox for the film Runaway Bride — turning the song’s lyrics into a rollicking series of punchlines.

When it comes to song choices, however, Wilson generally leans more toward serious material. Her other covers — including a rendition of “Angel of the Morning” and a medley of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and “Make You Feel My Love” — are definitive heartstring-tuggers. She delivers them with practiced ease: her voice strong, her emotional connection to the music clear, but she also makes it clear that other people’s material is not where her musical passions currently lie.

What Rita Wilson is interested in is songwriting; so most of the evening is spent with songs from her new, self-titled album (available March 11). Her eyes light up as she describes the emotion or life situation she aimed to capture with each song and the process of working with her co-writers (among them Oscar-nominees and hitmakers). At its best, the resulting songs call to mind the work of writers such as Shawn Colvin and Jonatha Brooke: confessional, thoughtful, searching. “I let go of being right, and you let go of trying to win,” she proposes in the moving, “Forgiving Me, Forgiving You,” which was, for me, the performance of the night.

Overall, the evening had less to do with how any one song compared with another and more to do with getting close enough to Wilson to see her genuine enthusiasm for the material. It’s reminds me of how shows like Empire and Nashville have successfully incorporated original music into their storytelling: It’s easier to care about unfamiliar music when it’s coming from someone in whom we’re emotionally invested. And whether she’s singing about “the frustration of being a Size 8 in a Size 00 world” (in the playful “Oh, No You Didn’t”) or candidly revealing that she had once made a list of everything her husband would have to be that turned out to be the polar opposite of Hanks (her now-husband of nearly 30 years), Wilson achieves at creating an intimate bond with her audience. When she described the process of songwriting “like meeting for the first time, stripping yourselves naked emotionally, having musical intercourse, and giving birth to a beautiful song,” I was utterly convinced that she meant it.

It’s hard to say if we, the audience, ultimately get to see the “real Rita” through this evening of songs and stories. Does that person look like the seasoned actress cracking jokes about working with Larry David; the surprising performer whose voice swings from the sunshiney Sheryl Crow to the flutey Joni Mitchell; the songwriter enthused about about exploring her craft? It might be that she’s all of these things at once or that she takes turns being a little bit of each: just picture Rita Wilson.

Photo by David Andrako

Photo by David Andrako

Rita Wilson performs at the Cafe Carlyle through March 5, Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:45pm, and Saturdays at 8:45pm and 10:45pm. For tickets, go to To learn more about her new album, visit

Last modified: January 23, 2018