"You ought to call it Winter Is Back," Lucie Arnaz said with a heavy accent, imitating a Latina housekeeper at the Carlyle Hotel who had a suggestion for the title of her show. Truly, it seems like this winter will never end. Luckily, Café Carlyle's April is in full bloom, with all its requisite love and heartbreak. Arnaz is making her solo debut at the vaunted supper club with a sensitive selection of love songs from the Great American Songbook. There's no better way to usher in springtime.
While this is her first time flying solo, Arnaz appeared at the Carlyle as a special guest of Bobby Short in the '80s, when she was a stage actress just embarking on a career as a cabaret performer. "It was the early eighties: You had to have whiskers or skates to get a job on Broadway," she noted sardonically. That kind of self-deprecating wit is the lifeblood of good cabaret and Arnaz has it in spades. It makes the audience feel at home and familiar with the performer, as if we're witnessing a private concert in someone's dining room.
"I guess you know what tonight's show is about," she said after finishing the evening's opener, Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin's "Love," originally sung by Lena Horne in the 1945 MGM film Ziegfeld Follies (which also starred Arnaz's mother, Lucille Ball). Arnaz heats up the room with a sizzling Latin arrangement of Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh's "When in Rome." Then she slows things down with a thoroughly unrushed rendition of Johnny Mercer and Rube Bloom's "Fools Rush In."
Arnaz excels with Mercer, wowing the room with "Something's Gotta Give." She can't help but salsa to this brilliant Billy Stritch arrangement, which infuses an irresistible Latin beat. Craig Carnelia's "Just a Housewife," from the musical Working, is another highlight. Arnaz (a mother of five herself) endows the testimony of her character with a raw passion and simple empathy.
She's backed by a band of three: Tom Hubbard on bass, Ray Marchica on drums, and her music director, Ron Abel, on piano. This trio creates a rich, full sound in a space as intimate as the Carlyle. The percussion arrangements are consistently surprising and fresh, while the bass lends a depth and color (especially on "Just a Housewife") to Arnaz's voice.
Arnaz sings two original songs by Abel and his partner, Chuck Steffan: "Slow Dancing" (featuring a jazzy solo by Abel) and the show closer, "Until Now." Arnaz even sings one of her own songs, "I Don't Like It Already," whose lyrics she claims to have written about one of her many gay boyfriends in the '80s (music by Madeline Stone). The song has a driving rock sound that caused Arnaz's voice to wear a little thin near the end as she forces out the last few tight and unsupported notes. What Arnaz lacks in a big, powerful voice, she more than makes up for in personality and likability. "I tried to sing it all and not breathe," she admitted matter-of-factly after the song finished, shrugging her shoulders in Abel's general direction.
Arnaz is a true entertainer who understands the art of cabaret. She makes eye contact with every single person over the course of the evening, making this already intimate evening even more memorable. By the end, it feels like we're just friends listening to stories and songs over a particularly excellent dinner.