Raissa Katona Bennett
Can’t Help Singing—
There were two performances happening simultaneously on the opening night of Raissa Katona Bennett’s three-show run at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency. The main one, of course, was Raissa’s smooth and sophisticated rendition of more than two dozen classics (including medleys) during Can’t Help Singing-The Music of Jerome Kern. But there was another subtle show taking place in the center of the audience. As Raissa would bring home her first few numbers, a gentleman who appeared to be in his 80s would punctuate the endings with an audible “Yeah!” or “Wow!” as his wife sat beaming alongside. Throughout the night, with almost every song Raissa delivered, he would put his hands to his cheeks with a look of joy on his face, or mouth the lyrics to the song, smiling all the while. It was clear that among the things Raissa Katona Bennett was accomplishing was helping a still spry octogenarian relive the memories of his youth, his loves and his life.Jerome Kern songs can do that to people of any generation, but especially to those who grew up during Kern’s heyday of the 1920s and ’30s. And when those beautiful ballads are coming from the lovely soprano instrument of Raissa Katona Bennett, it’s understandable why someone like our old friend would be overcome with emotion.
Raissa may have played the naïve and fragile Christine Daae for five years in The Phantom of the Opera, but she usually sports a sassy style in cabaret. For this show, director Eric Michael Gillett had her play it fairly straight, befitting the sophistication of the Kern melodies. At the top of the show, Raissa revealed that at least five Kern songs (the majority of which in this show were written with Oscar Hammerstein II, Otto Harbach, Johnny Mercer and Dorothy Fields) were among her top ten favorites to sing. By the time she got to the plaintive “Remind Me” (Fields’ lyric) ten songs into the set, one could sense that Raissa was imagining herself as the leading lady in all of Kern’s shows and movies that featured these tunes. While she was clearly comfortable delivering the Kern songbook, Raissa didn’t push the interpretive envelope, choosing instead to let the melodies speak for themselves.
Jazzing up a couple of numbers was the job of pianist/arranger Don Rebic and Tom Hubbard on bass. They were especially effective on “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” providing a bluesy sound in contrast to Raissa offering up the familiar melody. Among the other highlights were a fun duet with Rebic on “Pick Yourself Up” (Fields lyric), the linking of “They Didn’t Believe Me” (lyrics by Herbert Reynolds, a pseudonym for Michael Elder rourke) with “All the Things You Are” (Hammerstein lyric), and a mid-show medley of four songs from Show Boat, culminating with Raissa’s pitch-perfect “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” which sent our elderly audience member friend into a frenzy of applause.
If there could possibly be a glaring omission in such an exhaustive song set, it would have to be Raissa not including “Bill,” another classic from Show Boat. That’s a song she really would have knocked out of the Feinstein’s park. But that’s a minor quibble with what was a solid, enjoyable and professional evening of cabaret and Kern.