Kate Baldwin: “She Loves Him”

Picking a favorite Sheldon Harnick song is nearly impossible for me. If I tell you “Ice Cream” or “If I Were a Rich Man” give me a few seconds and I’ll start rattling off practically every other song he’s written. When picking songs for a Broadway itunes playlist, I couldn’t just pick one song and found myself placing every original cast album of his material into mix. That said, I can’t imagine how difficult it was for the divine Kate Baldwin to make the selections for her utterly charming tribute to Mr. Harnick, simply titled She Loves Him, playing Feinstein’s at the Regency from March 8-12, with the 86 year old lyricist appearing as her special guest.

Out of the seventeen selections, all but four had music by the late, great Jerry Bock, Harnick’s long-time collaborator. Together they wrote some of Broadway’s best scores including Fiorello!, Fiddler on the Roof, The Apple Tree and my personal favorite She Loves Me, racking up a few Tony Awards and a Pulitzer. Mr. Harnick has also collaborated with Joe Raposo on the musical version of A Wonderful Life, Richard Rodgers on Rex and others. On top of all this, he contributed his own material (words and music) to many off-Broadway and Broadway revues of the 1950s. Harnick’s lyrics are among the best ever written: character specific, vibrant and literate, brimming with wit and panache.

Kate started off with a bit of a tease, making her way to the microphone with a pad and pencil. Suddenly from the piano came a familiar four note introduction to “Ice Cream.” However, instead of writing a letter to “Dear Friend,” she wrote a letter to “Dear Sheldon,” asking him to be a part of her show with a specialized “He Loves Me.” Other gems soared: “When Did I Fall in Love?” stopped this show of showstoppers,” Ilona took us on “A Trip to the Library” and “I Couldn’t Be with Anyone But You” from A Wonderful Life was just beautiful.

The Tony-nominated soprano also happens to be very pregnant with her first child and her impending motherhood informed many of the selections made throughout the evening, most affectingly in her rendition of She Loves Me’s “Will He Like Me?” With utmost subtlety and without changing a single word, the song — which is in context Amalia’s admitting her apprehensions before her first date with “Dear Friend” — was suddenly a new song entirely. I know it’s Kate’s favorite Harnick song and hers may well be the definitive rendition (all due respect to the delightful Barbara Cook, who was also in the house).

Charlotte Rae’s name came up several times throughout the evening. Like Baldwin and Harnick, Ms. Rae is also an alumnus of Northwestern University. While studying, Rae played Harnick the original cast album of Finian’s Rainbow and encouraged him to be a musical theatre writer. Two specialties he wrote for Rae were on the program, which were of particular interest as Harnick also wrote the music. The first was the clever “The Boston Beguine” from New Faces of 1952, about a sexless romp between a bachelor stenographer and a Harvard Man. (Rae opted to do Three Wishes for Jamie instead and the song put the brilliant Alice Ghostley on the map). The other is the madcap “The Ballad of the Shape of Things,” a devilishly subversive number that was the comic highlight – and a song I’ve been unable to get out of my head all day. (Incidentally, Harnick told the enraptured opening night crowd that it was one of the easiest songs he’d ever written).

Usually when I’m at a show where there is a special guest, the individual might make an appearance for a song or two. Kate brought Sheldon onstage halfway through her set to a tumultuous ovation and much to our delight incorporated him into the rest of the show, starting with a spirited “To Life!” from Fiddler. One of the great memories I’ll always treasure was the opportunity to see Sheldon bring down the house with his own “If I Were a Rich Man” (aside from being a terrific writer, he’s a terrific performer). Together, they also shared the lovely “Dear Sweet Sewing Machine,” a gentle waltz that was taken out of Fiddler during the pre-Broadway tryout. They finished with a stirring duet of “In My Own Lifetime,” a haunting anthem from The Rothschilds. For their encore they shared “Sunrise, Sunset” from Fiddler.

The evening was directed by Diana Basmajian, Kate’s frequent collaborator who also did magnificent work on the star’s first appearance at Feinstein’s, helping to shape Kate’s vibrant patter and find the story in every song. They devised an amusing framing device with Kate finding (and in some cases facetiously stretching for) parallels between herself and Sheldon with an unbelievable combination of poise and self-effacing humor. Scott Cady served as musical director and pianist, Andrew Sherman was on woodwinds (apparently almost all of them) and John Beale was on bass; a perfect trio.

I simply cannot stress how magical this night this was; a joyous occasion that you secretly wished would never end. If anyone from PS Classics is paying attention, this must be Kate’s follow up recording to “Let’s See What Happens.” She Loves Him belongs on CD for everyone to hear. In the meanwhile, I have a ticket for the last show on Saturday night and I hope you’ve gotten your tickets as well. You don’t want to miss the best show in town.

And while I’m at it, Kate Baldwin needs to be Broadway’s next Amalia in She Loves Me. It’s been 18 years since the last revival — and we’re long overdue.

Coming Soon: Kate Baldwin & Sheldon Harnick at Feinstein’s!

Next week I’ll be making my first trip of the season to Feinstein’s at the Regency to see the delightful Kate Baldwin in a return engagement. I was there for her debut last December as she sang the songs associated with Burton Lane and Yip Harburg (also on her fabulous solo CD “Let’s See What Happens”). I last heard Kate sing at the NY Pops Sondheim Birthday Bash at Carnegie Hall back in November. Most recently, the expecting star sang as part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series.

For Feinstein’s, the Tony-nominated soprano will be performing She Loves Him, a celebration of lyricist Sheldon Harnick’s songs. Harnick is most famous for his indelible collaboration with the late Jerry Bock, writing Fiorello!, She Loves Me, Fiddler on the Roof and The Apple Tree (winning Tonys, a Pulitzer and ardent fans along the way. It’s no secret that I am a major Bock and Harnick fan and also hope that someone will have the foresight to produce a Broadway revival of She Loves Me starring Kate. Mr. Harnick, whose lyrics are among the finest written in musical theatre, will be Kate’s special guest for the seven shows between March 8-12. Tickets are available via the Feinstein’s website or by calling 212-339-4095 ($50.08-71.86 with a food/beverage minimum of $25). I cannot wait!


Mitzi Gaynor Razzles and Dazzles at Feinstein’s

It’s hard to believe it, but before last night Mitzi Gaynor had never played New York City. I know, right? You’d think with Hollywood, TV, Vegas and countless tours and appearances under her belt, that she’d have taken the Big Apple by storm years ago. But it’s better late than never and Ms. Gaynor is conquering NY in an extended engagement at Feinstein’s at the Regency.

The ballroom at the Regency was packed as celebrities, friends and fans turned out in droves to see the star on her first night (including Mr. Feinstein, Chita Rivera, Polly Bergen, Paul Shaffer and Joy Behar). At about a quarter to nine, an old TV clip started playing as the crowd discovered that the CBS Saturday night lineup was going to pre-empted for a Mitzi special. Her band (four musicians with an unnecessary synthesizer) played a brief overture. Then, to the delight of all, Ms. Gaynor strutted out onstage in that trademark Nellie Forbush sailor suit. Once she gained composure she launched into that outfit’s complement: “Honey Bun.”

Mitzi Gaynor in South Pacific is something that reaches far back into my childhood. It was the second Rodgers and Hammerstein film musical I ever saw, and was noteworthy b/c it was the only other musical aside from The Sound of Music that my father liked. So whenever it was on TV, we would be watching. My appreciation also grew with There’s No Business Like Show Business where she danced with Donald O’Connor, belted with Merman and held her own against Marilyn Monroe. Then there was also Les Girls, an MGM film that paired her up with Gene Kelly and made her a foil for brilliant comedienne Kay Kendall. Anyway, when I was invited by Feinstein’s to come see the show, I RSVPed – more than three months ago.

The voice isn’t as full as it once was, but she is still a supreme entertainer and can communicate beautifully through the words and music. Once she smiles that megawatt smile of hers, the years melt away and you are left with the one and only, now and forever Mitzi. When Mitzi takes charge, she has a congenial affair with her audience; the sort of thing that most younger artists will never know. She’s a charmer, for sure; warm and genuine, but also sassy and self-deprecrating – with razor sharp wit and the ability to laugh first and laugh last. Plus, she’s still got a knock-out figure.

The entertainer is one of the last links to a bygone era of entertainment, someone who sang with the greats – Sinatra, Merman, Kelly, etc. Her material ranged from songs she made famous to amusing specialties, most notably an adapted “Show Off” from The Drowsy Chaperone, which involved Mitzi twirling boobie tassles, climbing on the piano and showing off those knockout gams. In between sets, she would go off to change into yet another eye-popping Bob Mackie gown. During the interim, video montages would play – highlights from her films, TV appearances and pop culture references. From the hilarious to the poignant, she showed everything – the film soubrette, the camp icon of the 60s & 70s, but also her favorite role: as Mrs. Jack Bean.

Mitzi is a singer and dancer, yes, but she is also one of the greatest storytellers I have ever heard in my life. Striking the perfect balance between elegant and bawdy, we were given a glimpse into her private life as a young starlet being romanced by Howard Hughes (who advised her to buy property – off the Vegas strip!), falling in love with the man who would become her husband and dearest companion, Jack Bean (the moment she fell? when he told her she was “full of shit”) and stories about working with the one and only Ethel Merman. She said that if she went into the whole story of how she got South Pacific and the experience making it, her show would turn into “Nicholas Nickerby, or whatever the heck it’s called.”

The biggest laughs came from the two Merman stories. Flying into NY for the premiere of Show Business, Merm (whom Mitzi called “Mom” – Merm called her “Mitzeleh”) invited her and her husband to dinner with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at “Elmers” (El Morocco). She turned an anecdote about the simple act of putting on a cincher into comic art. Another story involved a chaotic evening at a Jersey casino, finding Merm and her pal Betty Bruce (who replaced Maria Karnilova in Gypsy) in the back seat of a Rolls Royce with a gallon of champagne.

Despite the presence of some pure camp and lowbrow humor, there were moments of unexpected vulnerability and openness. The termination of her film contract in 1954 and its devastating impact on her segued into a low-key, ruefully ironic reading of “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” transitioning into an upbeat number on the lyrical cue “But you go on.” She brought a moving silence to the crowd as she spoke and sang of her late husband, who died of pneumonia in 2006.

It’s not the most polished show I’ve seen at the Regency, but that’s a moot point. You’re going for Mitzi and you get a helluva lot of Mitzi. Now that’s what I consider getting your money’s worth.

Following her encore, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” a young lady got up onstage, much to our surprise. She was there representing the NY area Emmy Awards. As it turns out, Gaynor’s PBS special won last month but since the star was on tour with her show she couldn’t be in attendance. The overwhelmed Mitzi gave a gracious acceptance speech, bringing the crowd once again to its feet for a final standing ovation.

Since it was opening night, there was a champagne reception in the ballroom foyer following the performance. SarahB and I were quite fortunate to chat with Mitzi for a couple minutes. The star was ever so grateful and gracious, and it was a thrill for all of us in that room last night to be there for such a star. The next morning, my parents were both curious to know about the evening, and I showed them the picture above. It marks the first time in all my years of going out to theatre and solo shows that my parents have ever been jealous. I think Mitzeleh would get a kick knowing that the first thing my mother did was to call the neighbors letting them know she’s in town.

Mitzi’s playing Feinstein’s (remember, the ballroom!) until May 29. Don’t miss this show, whatever you do.

Mitzi Gaynor to Make NY Debut in May

It seems unbelievable that Mitzi Gaynor has never played the Big Apple, but finally after decades of television, film and touring, the South Pacific star is excited to make her New York performance debut. The star will bring her one woman show Razzle Dazzle: My Life Behind the Sequins in an intimate setting like Feinstein’s to get up close and personal with her fans. In her show, Ms. Gaynor will bring her incomparable brand of showmanship to the stage in a glittering multimedia one woman tour-de-force of music and memories from her show-stopping life and career.

Gaynor says “over the years I’d been asked to play New York on numerous occasions but the stars never quite aligned. That’s why I was thrilled when Michael Feinstein asked me to bring my show to his club and said I could have the Regency’s Ballroom so I’d have more room to play. I really can’t wait to be there. There’s no city in the world like New York.”

It’s interesting that Mitzi has never played Broadway, yet has done so many great roles in tour and in stock. I, for one, think she would have been a fantastic replacement in the original production of Mame (among many other shows). But it’s better late than never. I’m going to be with there with a certain Elsa-in-crime. And whenever Miss Mitzi is onstage, it’s bound to be an event.

Gaynor will play five engagements at Feinstein’s at the Regency from May 18 to May 22. Tickets are available online or via phone (212-339-4095) and mention the code MG101 for complimentary presale seating upgrade.

For the Love of Buckley

I would know that belt anywhere. Its distinctive timbre and resonance is the trademark of a voice that has wowed audiences with its agility for over forty years. Its possessor has always been noted for her ability to sing seemingly unattainable high notes with considerable ease. But up until last Saturday night, I had never had the privilege of seeing Betty Buckley live in performance. I’ve heard such great things from SarahB and Kari over the past few years, as they turn Betty’s annual gigs at Feinstein’s into the event of the season. One year they went twice in the same evening when the Tony-winning legend was performing two different shows. Much to my delight, the ladies asked me to tag along this year, as Betty returned with a brand new show of all material she had never sung before in public titled For the Love of Broadway.

The venue has fast become one of my favorite places to be in the last couple of months, with memorable evenings spent hearing Kate Baldwin and Tyne Daly. Last Saturday night I hit a trifecta with Ms. Buckley, who was once again working with her trio led by her long-time musical director Kenny Werner. Buckley’s new show is all Broadway music (as most people never want to hear her sing anything else), with an eclectic range from standards to cult favorites to a few contemporary numbers thrown into the mix. Aside from a brand new specialty written for her by John McDaniel and Erik Kornfield called, fittingly, “Belting”, I had heard almost every other song she sang before.

A magnanimous presence, she took the stage and launched into a medley of Rodgers and Hart tunes. It was clear to me instantly why my friends have been raving so rapturously. Betty picks up the microphone and immediately radiates warmth. She goes out of her way to include everyone in the venue including those on her periphery, like a hostess making sure every one of her guests is comfortable. Then she lets the music take over. Her patter was spare and concise – she was there to sing and did she ever. The song takes over her body, whether she is dancing along during an instrumental break or she is holding the microphone away from her to rip into a high note.

Betty loves jazz, and alluded tongue in cheek to those folks who want her to sing Broadway and only Broadway. Her response was the aforementioned specialty “When I Belt” which incorporated that full-throttled voice, with references to the many songs that have become her trademarks – and even a nod to that famed Cats gesture. But she got the last laugh as her entire evening was infused with jazz arrangements by Werner (who plays piano; the other two players were Billy Drewes on reeds/percussion and Tony Marino on bass). So she’s giving us Broadway, but on her terms. Now that’s a star.

I fell under her spell the moment she locked eyes with me during this opening set. The song was “This Can’t Be Love” and the lyric was “But still I love to look in your eyes.” I was sitting to her left right by the stage area, and she stood there and just gazed down with a big smile. I was hers for the next hour.

She jumped from Rodgers and Hart to Rodgers and Hammerstein singing a combination of “We Kiss in the Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed” from The King and I. There were many similar combinations from Golden Age shows. Here she paired “Bewitched” from Pal Joey with “Hey There” from The Pajama Game. While she sang the former, I couldn’t help but wonder why she didn’t play the role in the recent revival. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of anyone putting Come to Me, Bend to Me from Brigadoon with “This Nearly Was Mine” from South Pacific, but there it was in seamless combination.

However, there were some contemporary pieces tossed in for good measure. She did quite well by “I’ve Been Here Before” from Closer Than Ever, but it was her funny and sincere rendition of “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” from Avenue Q that stood out.

She paid homage to Elaine Stritch with the eleven o’clock number from the forgotten Goldilocks, “I Never Know When to Say When,” an introspective bluesy ballad that allowed Buckley to channel many Stritchisms (and also to celebrate Stritch’s recent 85th birthday). For a novelty, she brought up an audience member to be Clark Kent to her Sydney in “You’ve Got Possibilities” from It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman. The night I attended, she chose her pal Michael Buckley (no relation), an online personality, whose eagerness to ham it up distracted from the set rather than contributed to it. On a side note, her younger brother Norman Buckley, a Hollywood director, was on hand and she deservedly gushed over his achievements.

The dramatic apex of the set appears in “If You Go Away” from Jacques Brel, with a heart-tugging reading that could well be definitive. It was the culmination of the lyrical color she had provided in her interpretations all evening – there was something warm but hard-edge. When she sings one of these songs, she will rip your heart out with her uncompromising honesty, but avoids becoming either overly sentimental or maudlin in doing so. It’s the balance that she finds that transforms Betty into a cabaret superstar.

The last number in the set was “Home” from The Wiz, which was unexpectedly moving. I don’t think that I had ever paid attention to the lyric, or perhaps I have never heard a rendition that highlighted the words quite like hers. For an encore she dipped into West Side Story for an understated rendition of “One Hand, One Heart” from West Side Story. On her way out to sing it, she clutched our Sarah on the top of her head with affection. It was a sight beyond compare; a diva so much in love with her audience.

Betty’s For the Love of Broadway runs until February 27 at Feinstein’s at the Regency. After that, I can only hope her next stop will be Broadway. Strike that, I hope the next stop is the recording studio because she needs to lay down these tracks as soon as possible. Then Broadway. (How about it, Betty Lynn?)

Tyne Daly: "The Second Time Around"

Early in her set at Feinstein’s at the Regency, Tyne Daly takes a moment to reflect on the puns that have been made on her name in various songs and quotes, etc. She insists there isn’t one she hasn’t heard – and dared the audience to try and stump her. She uses this moment as a thematic stepping stone for her latest cabaret act, “The Second Time Around” as the actress has been brought back to the venue by popular demand. It exemplifies her wit and somewhat quirky sense of humor and self. Ms. Daly then proceeds to offer a master class in lyric interpretation, imparting sincerity into every single word and phrase she speaks and sings.

I’ve known of Tyne for many years – my first exposure being, of all things, her role as Clint Eastwood’s partner in The Enforcer, the third of the Dirty Harry features. She is probably best known for her TV work, but she is also a Tony-winner for her performance as Rose in the 1989 revival of Gypsy. My first opportunity seeing Ms. Daly onstage was two months ago in the fantastic off-Broadway production of Love, Loss and What I Wore at the West Side Theatre. (It is here that I admit that unfortunately, no we are not related).

Daly, sophisticated and real, charming and genuine, winsome and wizened, starts her evening with “The Hostess with the Mostes'” from Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam, a song she first sang at Encores! in 1995 with new lyrics specially written for the occasion (even a nod to the Berlin estate for having a sense of humor). She apologizes in advance for a missed lyric, or a note sung off-key. She needn’t have worried – the actress is so at ease in cabaret that if you’d think she’d been doing this sort of gig all her life. And while her voice is not quite her strongest asset as a performer, she sounds better here than I have ever heard her before.

The theme of the evening becomes time, as Ms. Daly uses her song set to explore her (and our) conceptions and obsessions with time – how one moment it can be suspended, then suddenly speed up. She ruminated on how life is in warp speed, and the events and incidents that can impact our lives (which makes for a lovely parallel with the concept behind Love Loss and What I Wore). One moment she’s reliving her high school dream to be a cheerleader, the next she’s wondering when her grandson got to be thirteen years old (and have his heart broken by Hannah in the 7th grade) and ruminating on heartbreak, joy, love, sorrow, etc.

While sitting at my table in Feinstein’s it dawned on me halfway through the performance that I had forgotten that there was anyone else in the room. On more than one occasion I felt as though Tyne was singing to me and me alone, heightening the intimacy of an already intimate venue, whose 10th anniversary she was also celebrating (“Where else in NY can you hear two Rudy Vallee songs in a row?” she deadpans).

The selections are eclectic, ranging from the popular to obscure. She sings popular standards, a cheer-leading rally, a devastatingly simple tribute to her mother with the 13th century folk ballad “O Waly, Waly.” She recalled her dream of being a cheerleader with a real obscurity – “Betty Co-Ed,” which contains “one of the worst puns in history.” She was exceptionally memorable with Bessie Smith’s blues classic “Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair, a song juxtaposed with “That’s Him Over There” co-written by Marilyn Bergman.

For her grandson, she offers “Sonny Boy” combined with a fabulous rendition of Bill Withers’ classic “Ain’t No Sunshine.” She also paid homage to the “second girls,” those musical theatre sidekicks that get the laughs but not the guy. Her “Adelaide’s Lament” was a comic highlight; it’s the first time I’ve ever seen Adelaide portrayed as a real girl who happens to be ditzy – and not the comic cartoon that we’re used to. She also combined “Ooh, My Feet!” from The Most Happy Fella and “I Can Cook Too” from On the Town in dedication to the wait staff.

An example of her seamless segues, she talked about all the French references to food in the latter song, and it brought about her revelation that she has an imaginary friend (or rather alter ego), who dreams of being a French chanteuse a la Piaf. Tyne delivered – in flawless French – a stunning, understated rendition of the Hoagy Carmichael standard “Stardust’ which culminated in a piano solo with shades of Debussy by pianist John McDaniel (The Rosie O’Donnell Show).

But just when you thought she couldn’t take it further, she espouses her alter-ego’s desire to revive Jerry Herman’s Dear World, a short-lived musical adaptation of The Madwoman of Chaillot. Ms. Daly brings her cabaret to a shattering climax with a medley of “Each Tomorrow Morning/And I Was Beautiful” and “I Don’t Want to Know,” creating a carefully constructed and delineated character to the proceedings. If there are any risk-taking producers with chutzpah or the folks from Encores! out there reading this, you do not want to pass up that opportunity. The evening was capped off with her encore (Tyne saved herself a trip to and from the kitchen) of Sonny West’s “Oh Boy.” Probably best known from Buddy Holly’s upbeat cover, Tyne’s was slower, introspective and devastating.

Kudos to musical director and occasional harmonist John McD, who guided the band and supported the star with considerable poise. The orchestra, as Tyne loving called them, consisted of Tom Hubbard on bass, Ray Marchica on percussion, Rick Heckman on woodwinds and Peter Sachon on cello. I couldn’t imagine a better group or better arrangements to accompany the star. Tyne Daly is every inch a star, and she radiates the confidence and grace that comes from being one. But she is also a reflection of maternal dignity and warmth. The combination is a knockout.

“The Second Time Around” is playing at Feinstein’s until January 30. Her show runs Tuesday through Thursday at 8:30PM and Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00PM with a second how at 11:00PM. There is a $60 cover ($75 premium seating) and a $40 food/drink minimum. Also, Feinstein’s is introducing a new policy with select seats going for a $40 cover no food/drink minimum (subject to availability).

Kate Baldwin at Feinstein’s

One of the great gifts of the holiday season was the chance to see Kate Baldwin’s debut at Feinstein’s back on December 13. The evening was a chance to celebrate her solo CD debut, “Let’s See What Happens,” one of the finest solo recordings released in the last couple of years. Her husband, actor Graham Rowat, made the following video of her evening, capturing her humor, elegance and of course, that stunning singing voice. For those of who weren’t able to be there that night, here’s a glimpse into that glorious evening. You can still catch Kate in Finian’s Rainbow at the St. James Theatre until January 17, it’s a performance you don’t want to miss. In the meanwhile, enjoy:

Kate Baldwin: "Let’s See What Happens"

Christmas came early this year. It started in October when Kate Baldwin released her sublime solo CD “Let’s See What Happens.” The album features Baldwin singing the songs of Lane & Harburg, the men responsible for her current success in the Broadway revival if Finian’s Rainbow, and is a disc that I find myself listening to on a regular basis. I treated myself to a rather luxurious Christmas present: an evening at Feinstein’s hearing Kate singing selections from her album.

Truth be told, I actually met Kate Baldwin the person before I became familiar with Kate Baldwin the artist. We were introduced to one another by SarahB last November at Birdland, where she and I simultaneously geeked out when Jonathan Tunick conducted the Broadway Moonlighters in the Merrily We Roll Along overture. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t somewhat star struck by her warm, gracious and effusive personality.

The first opportunity I had to see the actress at work was in the Encores! presentation of Finian’s Rainbow last March. There was something ethereal in the moment she opened her mouth to sing the first few measures of “How Are Things in Glocca Mora?” The quality of the vocal timbre, the tone, vibrato and underlying emotion were fused in this beguiling sense of entrancement. Her understated, showstopping delivery was one of the highlights of the musical, which charmed enough critics to warrant a Broadway transfer. Kate Baldwin entered, as she calls it, “Leading Lady Land.”

While Baldwin has amassed some impressive credits over the past ten years, she has remained mostly on the periphery. She has appeared in some shows off-Broadway and Encores, but mostly understudied major roles on Broadway in Thoroughly Modern Millie and Wonderful Town, plus noted turns in Opening Doors at Carnegie Hall and at Wall to Wall Sondheim. In regional theatres around the country, she has had the opportunity to play many of the classic musical theatre heroines: Nellie in South Pacific, Maria in The Sound of Music, Marian the Librarian in The Music Man, Amalia in She Loves Me, etc, etc. and so forth. Kate is a performer of such versatility that she can easily be both ingenue and soubrette. In fact, were she born in the Golden Age of musical theatre, the creators of these shows would have breaking down her door to write for her. It is the unexpected and deserved success of Finian’s Rainbow that has catapulted her into the big leagues and is likely to be a serious contender for a Tony nomination this spring.

Sarah informed me of Kate’s plan to record a solo album, which would homage the canons of both Burton Lane and Yip Harburg, the men responsible for the Finian’s score. It was the news that she would record “That Something Extra Special” from Darling of the Day had me about as thrilled as you can imagine. That show, which featured Harburg’s lyrics set to Jule Styne’s music, is one of my all-time favorite scores. It was a fast failure in 1968, but earned Patricia Routledge a Tony, and became a cult favorite of many musical theatre enthusiasts, Baldwin included.

On the night of the first preview of Finian’s Rainbow, I had the pleasure of talking with Kate about the songs on her album, our mutual admiration for Patricia Routledge and many long-forgotten scores that languish in obscurity. There is a great similarity between her and the great Maureen O’Hara. Both are feisty, independent yet always feminine (and both excellent singers) Such is the case I think Encores! should revive Donnybrook! (the underrated musical version of The Quiet Man) for her. She is also exceptionally well-versed in the history of musical theatre, and is one of the few people able to keep up with my inherent esoteric rambling. (Like true musical theatre geeks we finished each other’s sentences about various shows and various composers). One of the beautiful things about her solo album is that most of the song selections are obscure gems that have long been waiting for rediscovery.

The album was released in October by PS Classics, just before opening to unanimous raves from the NY critics. The disc is a necessity for any musical theatre fan. Not only is it an auspicious debut effort, but it’s also one of the best solo albums I’ve heard in quite some time. The first cut is the aforementioned “That Something Extra Special,” which establishes the intimate tone for what’s to come, and is also an apt description of Kate’s vocal styling. Kate possesses a voice that is as at ease in soprano ballads as it is in uptempo jazz. She also enlisted many of the friends she’s made for orchestrations, including Jason Robert Brown, Rob Berman (her musical director and pianist at Feinstein’s), Georgia Stitt, and EGOT winning Jonathan Tunick (who also played clarinet for one of the cuts – even Benny Goodman would eat his heart out!).

It’s hard to pick out favorites, as I don’t think there is a single track on the album that I don’t enjoy. But my love goes out to the combination of “Let’s See What Happens,” also from Darling of the Day and “Open Your Eyes” from Royal Wedding, combined in a simple, elegant piano arrangement by Berman (who fuses the songs with the unexpected but brilliant “Emperor’s Waltz” by Johann Strauss). There are upbeat readings of “Come Back to Me” from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (Lerner & Lane), “I Like the Likes of You” from Ziegfeld Follies of 1934 (Vernon Duke & Harburg) and “Have Feet, Will Dance” from the 1957 TV musical Junior Miss (Lane & Dorothy Fields). Contrasting are plaintive readings of “Here’s to Your Allusions” from the infamous Flahooley (Sammy Fain & Harburg) and “Paris is a Lonely Town” from Gay Purr-ee (Harold Arlen & Harburg). She also plants the tongue firmly in cheek as she takes on Lena Horne’s unusual eleven o’clock number “I Don’t Think I’ll End It All Today” from Jamaica (Arlen & Harburg), an infectious calypso dismissing suicide. The album ends with a stunning “The World in My Arms,” originally from Hold on to Your Hats (Lane & Harburg). Her reading of the song is so intimate and so personal, it’s like stumbling across a love letter that fell out of the pages of a diary.

Being at Feinstein’s last night felt like a sort of throwback as we watched Kate Baldwin the Broadway star became Kate Baldwin the chanteuse. It was her first time performing at the venue, and apparently her first attempt at cabaret. She delighted with her effortless charm and offbeat sense of humor, all the while radiating a luminescent star quality. Her banter included lots of love for her husband, the equally charming and gracious Graham Rowat, as well as stories from her musical theatre background. The audience was smitten from the very start and laughed amiably as she recreated her high school performance as Evita (completely with all operatic head voice and absolutely no chest voice), a summer camp performance as Gloria Rasputin in Bye Bye Birdie as well as stories about looking up various fans on Facebook.

She set list for the evening contained mostly gems from the CD, delivered with the same intimacy and compelling intelligence found on the record (did I mention she referred to it as her “record” all evening? Points for period charm). Poised, patrician and elegant she was at ease with a ballad as she was with an uptempo number; transforming before our very eyes into a girl singer along the likes of Rosemary Clooney. She also added a few numbers not found on the album: “Too Late Now,” the gorgeous ballad by Lerner & Lane from Royal Wedding and a charming rendition of “The Merry Old Land of Oz” from, well, you know, but that included some tongue in cheek nods to other’s songs in Finian’s Rainbow. She also interrupted herself during Cy Coleman & Dorothy Fields’ “I’m the Bravest Individual” from Sweet Charity to relay amusingly self-deprecating anecdotes of the unintentionally back-handed compliments she’s received over the years. Which leads me to a question: when will Ms. Baldwin record an album of Coleman songs?

Kate ended her set with “The World in Your Arms,” which is, as I have been known to put it, musical theatre zen. Her encore was the delicate arrangement of “How Are Things in Glocca Mora?” from her album, which brought the enchanted crowd to its feet. If Mr. Feinstein is smart, he should already be arranging her next engagement before the Cafe Carlyle and Metropolitan snatch her up (which given her exceptional year, is an inevitability).

The season of Kate Baldwin, as Sarah has dubbed it, continues as Kate, Cheyenne Jackson and the cast of Finian’s recently recorded their revival cast album, which will be released by PS Classics early next year. Last night wasn’t just Kate’s first time at Feinstein’s, but also mine. (I even wore a suit for the occasion, and those who know me well know that’s a feat in itself). I couldn’t imagine a better first experience than hearing Kate, while sharing more laughs and good times with those good and crazy people, my friends Sarah, Kari and Roxie. Fortunately, this time no one yelled at us, nor did Roxie yell at anyone famous. So in all, it was an evening I shall never forget. Oh – and one more innocent confession: I’m a little bit in love with Kate Baldwin. (I hope you don’t mind, Graham). But truth be told, is there anyone out there who isn’t?