Stepping into 54 Below is a little bit like entering a time warp. From the doorman's cordial greeting (no barking demands to see an ID here) to the rounded martini glasses masquerading as champagne coupes, everything screams 1920s and '30s — especially Broadway songstress Rebecca Luker, who has brought back her Jerome Kern concert for four performances only. A bright soprano with a ringing vibrato, Luker has a voice tailor-made for Kern. It is a rare and refreshing thing in this age of glory notes and power ballads.
Indeed, the theme for this all-Kern evening (the set list is pulled mostly from Luker's latest album, I Got Love) seems to be "I'm Old Fashioned," from the 1942 Johnny Mercer collaboration You Were Never Lovelier. The audience nods in assent as Luker sweetly implores them to "stay old-fashioned with me." Since Kern died in 1945, none of the songs in Luker's show are younger than 68 years old, with the arguable exception of the closing number, "April Fooled Me," for which longtime Kern collaborator Dorothy Fields penned the lyrics a full decade after his demise. Kern wrote for an era of innocent ingénues with "legitimate" voices, a time in which Luker seems perfectly at home.
Yet, dressed in a black pantsuit with big shiny lapels, there is something very modern about Luker. In her set's funnier songs, like "Saturday Night" (lyrics by P.G. Wodehouse) and "My Husband's First Wife" (lyrics by the original actress for whom it was written, Irene Franklin), Luker provides commentary on each word in a manner that is practically Brechtian. She navigates this contradiction with simple elegance and a self-effacing humor that makes you like her.
Luker's expressive eyes convey depth in the more serious songs as well. She grows misty in "Not You," a heartbreaking song of unwelcomed love. She has an uncanny knack for looking verklempt during musical interludes that might seem forced coming from a less seasoned performer; however, with each song Luker makes you believe, none so much as the one she dedicates to her husband, Danny Burstein: "Why Was I Born?"
The Kern-Anne Caldwell song "Bullfrog Patrol" (not on the album) from the 1919 operetta She's a Good Fellow proves to be the highlight of the evening. Actress Sally Wilfert (Assassins) joins Luker on stage and both women strum ukuleles while singing some truly bizarre lyrics about froggy love. With the intense side-eye Luker and Wilfert give each other, the number feels like one of Lucy and Ethel's sister acts at the Tropicana. These two should really do more together.
Luker is backed by pianist Joseph Thalken and bassist Dick Sarpola. Thalken arranged all the music, including the Kern & Hammerstein classic "The Folks Who Live on the Hill," which features a delightfully jazzy bass solo by Sarpola.
If you're looking for a trip back to the jazz age (which seems likely as Gatsby-mania sets in), you can do no better than Rebecca Luker at 54 Below. Go see her while you can.
Rebecca Luker Sings Jerome Kern continues performances at 54 Below on May 15 at 7:00pm, May 17 at 8:00pm, and May 18 at 8:00pm. For tickets and more information, please click here.