Raissa Katona Bennett
“Another Kind of Light”
Feinstein’s at Loews Regency – August 21-25
When Raissa Katona Bennett, veteran of Broadway shows and champion of cabaret, enters the elegant Feinstein’s at Loews Regency to begin her week-long engagement, she conveys the assurance and warmth of one who is enjoying the occasion. She performs her opening song, “Make Me a Kite” (Michele Brourman, Amanda McBroom), from the room itself, bestowing a collective hug around the crowd like a caring teacher. In lesser hands, a lyric like “Make me a kite, give me rainbow wings/ Make me a kite with a thousand miles of silken string” might translate as sentimental glop, but Bennett’s innate intelligence and sincerity make it work. She has a pleasing, unadorned soprano voice that delivers lyrics with precision, yet with enough flexibility to vary the musical line.
Bennett’s show, “Another Kind of Light” (the name of her new CD), was directed by Eric Michael Gillett. It offers an evening mostly of songs that play to her strength, which is telling a story through song. Early on, she says, “Lately, I’ve been purging my life of excess clutter and I don’t want to talk too much.” Indeed, many of her song choices reflect that: they are patter set to music. And, so, songs like “I Furnished My One-Room Apartment” (Stephen Hoffman, Michael Mooney) and “How Could I Not?” (Alan Menken, David Spencer), which lead us through a premise to an epiphany, are the most successful. Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate on You,” a song with a more direct approach, never quite generates the heat it should, though it starts nicely against just percussion and bass and has an impressive vocal build.
“Putting Things Away” (Amanda McBroom) and “Torch Song for Raissa” (written especially for her by Michael John LaChiusa) demonstrate her ease with subtle, smart humor. The latter is a witty, jazzy homage to modern-day, technology-infused romance, with a lyric that makes ample use of texting jargon and includes the refrain “Come on and text me.” Bennett is less believable on Christine Lavin’s “Good Thing He Can’t Read My Mind.” One can’t really lose with those lyrics, but Bennett doesn’t strike me as the type who would put up with her loved one’s hobbies just because she loves him.
Throughout, Bennett maintains her poise, charms with well-chosen patter, and, technically, does not make a misstep. She knows how to build a song and explore a lyric. And yet… something is missing. About three-quarters of the way through the show, she says, “I’m a creature of habit, I thrive on structure.” For this reviewer, that was the “aha!” moment. My sense is that Bennett has worked so hard to get it right, polish the act to a fine shine, build an unshakeable structure, that she hasn’t allowed enough room for spontaneity—too few opportunities to let us into her soul.
Likewise, while no one can dispute the talent of her band, the best in the business (David Caldwell, piano; Ritt Henn, bass; Sean Harkness, guitar; Ray Marchica, drums), Bennett is primarily a storyteller and might be better served with just piano. In other words, it’s a lot of window dressing—but we don’t want to be distracted by the beautiful shutters and drapes, we want to see into the room.
Toward the end of the show, Bennett gives us a couple of glimpses into that soul. Another LaChiusa song, “Bye, Bye Ingénue,” walks a tightrope, with Bennett saying a fond goodbye to a successful past of playing the ingénue but taking tentative and courageous steps toward a future as a more fulfilled older woman. That song seemed to be the key to opening her up even more, and she follows it with “Waiting for a Westbound Train” (Ron Abel, Chuck Steffan), arguably the best marriage of material and singer in the act. Bennett digs into this story song about a young girl’s desperate yearning to leave her small town for bigger dreams as if the memory were still fresh for her as well.
Late into the proceedings, while talking about technology, Bennett speaks of the new, environmentally friendly light bulbs. “They take a long time to get bright, but then they shine brighter and longer than the others,” she says. “I take that to heart.” She reveals her own inner light in that statement, a faith that will not be dimmed. That faith, combined with her talent and diligence, may indeed keep her burning bright for years to come. The only thing left for Bennett to do to ensure that is to trust her preparation and then let go of it. Take the leap.
About the Author
Kevin Scott Hall performed in cabaret clubs for many years and recorded three CDs, including “New Light Dawning” in 1998, which received national airplay. He also worked at the legendary piano bar, Rose’s Turn, and has taught cabaret workshops and directed shows since 1995. Kevin earned his MFA in Creative Writing at City College of New York. He is an adjunct professor in the Theatre and English departments at City College and Borough of Manhattan Community College. His novel, “Off the Charts!” was published in 2010, and his memoir, “A Quarter Inch from My Heart” (Wisdom Moon), in 2014. Kevin writes a monthly column and entertainment features for Edge Media Network, writes reviews for BistroAwards.com, and freelances for other publications.