BWW Reviews: NATALIE DOUGLAS Is a Dazzling Diva in Her Debut at Cafe Carlyle
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
Over the last 20 or so years, there have been three nightclubs in New York that have been considered the venue Holy Grail for cabaret singers. Two of them--the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel and Feinstein's at the Loews Regency--have in the past year or so sadly died a corporate death, leaving the upper east side Cafe Carlyle as the Carnegie Hall of cabaret haunts. When she first came to New York from California 24 years ago, Natalie Douglas would save her pennies to see the legendary Bobby Short perform at the Carlyle and dream that she would some day star in a show from that room. Last Thursday and Friday nights, after almost a quarter century performing in every New York venue on the cabaret map and many prestigious clubs around the world, and after winning numerous MAC, Bistro and Nightlife Awards, Douglas finally stood solo on the stage at that venerable venue and the audiences who saw her shows probably wondered why it took so long.
What they saw and heard (especially the Friday night crowd) was a young veteran entertainer hitting her absolute performing prime. I've been reviewing cabaret shows for just three years so I don't have a Natalie Douglas frame of reference other than her two Birdland shows the past two years--Freedom Songs and Scrapbook 2.0. While I thought both were excellent, the Carlyle performance took her to another level. We're talking Ann Hampton Callaway territory, my friends.
The Friday late night audience was buzzing with anticipation by the time Douglas walked through the crowd, her long-time Musical Director Mark Hartman already in tow at the piano. Wearing a low cut black gown with a flowery bodice wrapped in a shrug, Natalie was buxom, bubbly, and beaming throughout a 13-song set that included eclectic yet accessible songs from pop to Great American Songbook, some from past shows in which she has paid tribute to icons like Lena Horne and Nat King Cole. It was a set that not only showed off her range and flair for nuance, but also established once and for all that she is one of the few vocalists in cabaret who can sing just about anything.
After transitioning from an upbeat pop sound to cool R&B on Jimmy Webb's "Everybody Gets To Go To The Moon" for her opener, she yelled "Woo Hoo" about finally performing at the Carlyle and then proceeded to babble giddily about everything from once meeting George Bush to playing gigs on cruises to Greece and Italy. Natalie enjoys chatting up the audience in a way that can seem like a spacey stream of consciousness riff that goes over the top, but in this setting that is more intimate than, say, Birdland (where she has performed 25 times in eight years), her patter was charming and totally worked. While her longish script may sometimes shorten the set list, in this show her 13 songs were so lush and layered, it felt like much more.
If this show had been a baseball game, Douglas would have had a five home run night. Her rendition of Gloria Estefan's pop ballad "Can't Stay Away From You," was tender and emotive, while on the Nat King Cole hit "Somewhere Along the Way" she sounded like a delicious and delicate 1930s New York nightclub singer. At her most recent Birdland show, Douglas blew the roof off on a full band arrangement of the 1984 John Waite pop song "Missing You. But with just Hartman at the piano for the Carlyle show, Douglas pulled back a bit on the tempo and power and transformed the song into a heart-wrenching ballad of obsession and longing that built to a stunning climax. A bit later, she was similarly haunting on Bob Telson's "Calling You," from the 1987 film Bagdad Cafe, and she delivered "Let It Be Me" (covered by almost everyone from Elvis to the Everly Brothers) as a soaring gospel ballad. Hartman, whose quirky piano riffs behind certain lyrics were inspired, produced wonderfully jazzy and bluesy piano and vocal arrangements on Rodgers & Hart's "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" and on the show's finale, Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh"s "The Best Is Yet To Come," proving once again that Douglas and Hartman are totally in tune and in synch and musically might have been separated at birth. (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)