Judy Collins
(© CAMERA PRESS/James Vesey)
Judy Collins
(© CAMERA PRESS/James Vesey)
Few performers seem as truly comfortable on stage, or can make an audience feel as comfortable, as Judy Collins does, as was clearly evidenced by the legendary pop-folk singer's opening night of her now-annual engagement at the Café Carlyle.

Celebrities like Candice Bergen, theater royalty like Betty Buckley and Dana Ivey, swanky socialites and a few "regular" folk came together as one beneath the room's gorgeous murals, indulging in the occasional singalong (not only encouraged but practically mandated by Collins from the get-go, a truly lovely "How Can I Keep From Singing") and collectively marveling at Collins' timeless beauty, generosity of spirit, and purity of voice at age 71. It's simply a master class in the art of cabaret and the soul of an artist.

Indeed, there's a freshness to her anything-might-happen approach, where she consistently interrupts a train of thought or seemingly meaningful reminiscence to embrace another tangent or deliver a snippet of a beloved tune. She can be a bit of a tease; she sang some of -- but not all -- of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne" as gorgeously as she did nearly five decades ago, but not even a note of "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" or "Both Sides Now," even after bringing them up prominently in conversation.

Still, what songs she chose to treat the crowds to were sparkling gems, each displaying another facet of her fascinating musical personality. The élan of Joni Mitchell's "Chelsea Morning" and John Denver's "Country Road (Take Me Home)" paired with a not-so-somber "Leavin' on a Jet Plane" soon gave way to the gorgeous melancholy of "Danny Boy" and "Barbara Allen." The moods later shifted like quicksilver, a defiant "Diamonds and Rust," a slightly plaintive "Who Knows Where the Time Goes," and a dreamy "My Father" all nestled comfortably atop each other to paint a portrait of an artist through the ages.

The show's final section was perhaps its most effective. Keeping dry-eyed after hearing "Kingdom Come," her autobiographical recollection of a concert in honor of the firefighters who died on 9/11 is unlikely; having your heart stay in one piece as she pours her heart through her epic tune "The Blizzard" -- about the woman facing the end of a love affair amid a massive snowstorm -- is almost unfathomable.

And yet to follow them up with two of the greatest songs ever written -- "Over the Rainbow" and "Send in the Clowns" -- might seem foolhardy if not downright insane in other hands. But somehow they are exactly the right codas to the musical journey we've all just shared; summations of hope and regret set to melodies that linger long after the lights have come back on and we've retreated from the safety of the Carlyle -- and Judy Collins' wordly-wise guidance -- to forge our own paths once more.