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Nell Carter

Date: 2001-02-23

The name of Nell Carter's cabaret act at Feinstein's at the Regency is Something for Everyone. That title was not lightly chosen. A grab bag of material ranging from swing to country and then swerves to theater music before settling on the blues, this is a show that aims to please all the people all the time. Yet any politician (when telling the truth) will admit that you can never please all the people all the time. Nell Carter is talented enough to almost pull off such a foolhardy endeavor, but she gets in her own way a few times too many and diminishes what is otherwise a rip-roaring good time.

She opens her show with a vibrant series of Duke Ellington tunes, including a careening "Take the A Train," all of which is intended to establish a sense of musical fun. She doesn't dig deep into the lyrics of these songs?not even "In My Solitude"?but she sure does show off her extraordinary, distinctive trumpet of a voice. And that's enough for a while. Soon after, she barrels through a crowd-pleasing medley of tunes from her hit Broadway revue, Ain't Misbehavin'. At the front end of the medley, Carter offers a refreshing uptempo rendition of "Honeysuckle Rose" that displays her masterful phrasing. After changing moods and manners in songs like "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling," she finally builds to a ferociously explosive "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now."

Unfortunately, Carter breaks a cardinal rule of cabaret: "Know Thy Audience." She insists that her audience either sing along or clap along, which runs against the grain at a swanky club like Feinstein's at the Regency; when you're paying major bucks to be entertained you don't want to have to provide the entertainment yourself. If people want to clap along, they will. If people want to sing along, they will. It's okay to encourage audience participation with a word or a gesture, but a performer should never raise the house lights and try to bully patrons into becoming a part of the show. In this regard, Carter made a huge snafu on opening night, attempting to stare down one of our colleagues from the press who chose not to sing along with her. Frankly, it didn't matter that he was a journalist; he could have been anyone. Carter's stare was meant to be funny, but it caused the temperature in the room to plumme as if an iceberg had just rammed the good ship Nell. Later, she publicly apologized to the gentleman. But while she never lost her poise during the incident, neither did she fully recover the good vibes with the audience that she had lost.

Carter's patter is otherwise entertaining and playful. She is one of those rare people who have an old-fashioned, brassy, show business personality when speaking and a modern-day emotional sensibility when cutting into a ballad. She opens her heart and soul when she sings "My Funny Valentine," then stops the show with what you might call a country operetta in miniature titled "Cold Day in July." Intensely acted and passionately committed, this number brings the evening to a whole new level. Barry Levitt is Carter's pianist/conductor, and his four-piece band provides standout musicianship from the first note to the last.