Katie Finneran strides onto the stage of 54 Below to the strains of Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely." And indeed she is, even when that stride is abruptly broken by a stumble and fall. Is it a genuine slip or was it planned? Finneran is such a talented and controlled comedian, you can never really be sure, but you suspect the latter. Scripted or not, she keeps us rolling in the aisles in her debut nightclub act, It Might Be You — A Funny Lady's Search for Home.
Finneran is an undeniably funny lady in the same vein as Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett: 100 percent committed in her physicality. "I guess I should have rehearsed this with the dress on," she said as she slid off a stool attempting to sit down in her slender black cocktail dress. She has a talent for contorting her face in unexpected and hysterical ways that highlight the lyrics she's interpreting.
A simple hair toss and a blank stare do everything for Mary Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim's "The Boy From," a sendup bossa-nova song of unrequited love for a fey gentleman from a fictional Latin American village with a ridiculously long name. Every lyric is exquisitely clear, seemingly produced with the least effort of Finneran's jaw.
She's something of a master of Sondheimian tongue twisters, brilliantly reprising "Getting Married Today," which she performed in the New York Philharmonic concert of Company. Finneran was nursing her baby son while she was first learning the song, a scene she hilariously reenacts for 54 Below.
Other highlights of the evening include Jimmy McHugh and Frank Loesser's "Murder He Says" (a song about the horrors of dating) and a particularly foulmouthed version of "What Do You Think I Am" by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. I never knew you could fit so many F-bombs into the lyrics and still have the song scan perfectly, but that's Tony Award-winning diction for you.
Between songs, Finneran regales the audience with stories from her career and the times before her career, including her stint as a waitress at Tavern on the Green: "I spilled a tray of bloody marys; it looked like I shot a bunch of people." The evening is mostly funny, but occasionally very sweet, like when Finneran recalls the moment she met her husband, actor Darren Goldstein, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. She sings "It Might Be You" from Tootsie in this moment and you understand her joy.
Four excellent musicians flank Finneran onstage. Music director/pianist Steven Marzullo leads a band that includes Simon Kafka on guitar, Mary Ann McSweeney on bass, and Eric Poland on drums. Marzullo runs a tight ship and occasionally steers Finneran back when she goes off course or forgets the set list. (Or is she just pretend forgetting?) "Good night, everybody," she says when she can't remember the next song.
While Finneran's comedic songs have much more movement than her more serious ones (which tend to hum along at the same place with little development), she still manages to deliver them with a simple and affable charm. There is little room for weepy love ballads in this show and that's perfectly fine. Finneran seems to be in a very happy place right now. As far as cabaret debuts go, this is a very good one.