“Can’t Help Lovin’”
Oak Room at the Algonquin – April 5 – 30
In 1986, Lonette McKee portrayed the great Billie Holiday in off-Broadway’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. This was a solo realization of Lady Day in the 1950s shortly before she died, her voice ragged and rough but still thrillingly expressive, as proven in her last and immensely popular album, Lady in Satin. McKee channeled the complicated, often contrary persona of Lady Day, and while she did not impersonate Holiday’s sound or timing, she was memorable in her subtle dramatic interpretation and delivery of the music’s emotion.
Earlier, McKee had won a Tony Award nomination as the first African-American woman to play Julie in a major American production of Showboat, and a decade later she repeated the role, her interpretation more mature and even more potent. Her stunning rendition of “Bill” (Jerome Kern, P.G. Wodehouse, Oscar Hammerstein II) was close to definitive. With fine-boned beauty and acting prowess, McKee also scored in films like The Cotton Club and ‘Round Midnight.
Therefore, it is not surprising that coming to the Algonquin Hotel’s Oak Room for the month of April, this singer-actress-songwriter arrives equipped with a compendium of carefully crafted, well-interpreted songs. This show, however, is more personal. It is about McKee, herself, and along with her musicianship, she brings to it a refreshing sense of humor and informality. Through a program of standards and original songs—like her opener, a declarative “Colors of the Love of My Life”—she lets a self-portrait emerge.
McKee barely gets to the stage when she kicks off her shoes (at least she did on opening night). Her informality, sometimes giddy, or as she says, “silly,” persists throughout the show, except when interrupted by the serious business of music. Perhaps it was first-night jitters but at the opening McKee was not always sure of what song came next and who the composer was. Nevertheless, when it came to singing, she was on terra firma. The music and what it means emerge from a well deep within her. She comprehends how the song affects her and she lets the audience understand and feel it.
McKee has a captivating voice with a husky patina that makes every song sound a little bit sensuous. It works particularly well with right woman/wrong man torch songs like “Lover Man (Oh, Where Can You Be?)” (Jimmy Davis, Roger “Ram” Ramirez, James Sherman) and “When a Woman Loves a Man” (Bernard D. Hanighen, Gordon Jenkins, Johnny Mercer). From the film ‘Round Midnight with jazz saxophone great Dexter Gordon, her rendition of George and Ira Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Going On?” is shadowed with poignancy. McKee delivers the meditative, soulful essence of Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s “Ill Wind,” one of the few highlights in the film The Cotton Club.
McKee turns to her Michigan roots for Curtis Mayfield’s “Hooked on Your Love,” which she sang in Sparkle, a 1976 film that sparkled awhile and then fizzled into cult status. It was, however, the precursor of the musical Dreamgirls, a few years later. She wrote and sings original songs with the Motown influence, like the perky “Do To Me,” which she says could only have been written by an 18-year-old.
A compelling rendition of “God Bless the Child” (Billie Holiday, Arthur Herzog, Jr.) one of Lady Day’s most memorable songs, stings with the pang of bitterness. Her encore, “Bill,” remains as striking as it did in Showboat. And when the song has finished, McKee picks up her shoes. “I’m outta here,” she says. The party is over.
Lonette McKee, a warm, sensitive lady and a first-class singer, is accompanied by high-octane music arranger Bette Sussman, who occasionally joins her in vocals, Lee Nadel on bass, and drummer Kahlil Kwame Bell.