On paper, the idea of a world-famous opera singer taking to the stage at the intimate 54 Below to perform musical theater and jazz standards might seem like the thoughts of a woman flirting with madness. But even if Patricia Racette has portrayed a few of grand opera's looniest ladies, her decision to present Diva on Detour (based on her just-released album of the same name) isn't just an act of sanity, it's a demonstration of artistic brilliance.
Racette is far from your stereotypical opera diva. In fact, there wasn't really a high C to be heard as she showed off a gorgeously modulated chest voice with an impressive belt – one that made you wonder why she even bothered to a use a microphone. More importantly, she's deeply funny (even a bit bawdy) and down-to-earth, treating the audience at 54 Below like old friends hanging out in her Santa Fe living room. (Then again, many people in her opening night crowd appeared to actually be her friends.) And her impersonation of her raspy-voiced Italian mother Jackie, who clearly disapproved of her daughter's career choice, was just as uproarious as Judy Gold or Jackie Hoffman's portrayals of the women who raised them.
Racette's gift for acting was even more evident in her interpretation of lyrics, as she dug into the heart of her selections. Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin's "The Man Who Got Away," Matt Dennis and Earl Brent's jazzy "Angel Eyes," and, most especially, Murray Grand and Elisse Boyd's "Guess Who I Saw Today," paired with Alan and Marilyn Bergman and Johnny Mandel's "Where Do You Start" were practically one-act plays about love, loss and heartbreak that practically brought me to tears. While the show was full of ballads, Racette wisely lightened the mood here and there, with aptly humorous takes on Stephen Sondheim's "I'm Calm" and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's "To Keep My Love Alive." (She even opted to perform the "happy" version of Sondheim's "Not a Day Goes By" as her encore.)
And even when I expected to be dazzled by a traditional soprano, such as when Racette tackled Cole Porter's fiery "So in Love," she defied expectations by sticking to her strong, sure lower register. She was also willing to take some well-known songs in unexpected directions: another Rodgers & Hart standard, "Where or When," was done with a light jazz-inspired lilt, while her pianist, Craig Terry, underscored Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's "Come Rain or Come Shine" with an inspired touch of Bach.
Throughout the evening, it was clear that Racette was happy to have "detoured" from her usual repertoire. And cabaret goers will be just as happy if they momentarily take a turn from their tried-and-true "divas" to experience this extraordinary singer.
Patricia Racette: Diva on Detour returns to 54 Below, March 26-30. For more information and tickets, click here.