Melissa Manchester makes her Café Carlyle debut in You Gotta Love the Life.
Melissa Manchester makes her Café Carlyle debut in You Gotta Love the Life.
(© Michael Wilhoite)

Prepare to be transported back to 1982. Wearing an "executive realness" black pantsuit, complete with chunky costume jewelry and hair that reaches to the heavens, Melissa Manchester casually strides onto the stage of Café Carlyle for her debut performance in that vaunted hall of cabaret. "I'm your after-dinner mint," she later declares with a cheeky swagger and infectious laugh.

With a career that spans more than four decades, Manchester is the reigning queen of power ballads. In excellent voice, her skills have not diminished over the years; they've deepened. This is a must-see show for anyone who wants to have a good cry into their cheesecake.

The singer-songwriter sets an appropriate tone with her opening number, "Open My Heart to Your Love," which she cowrote with Michael Hunter Ochs. It's a heartfelt ballad, undergirded by the tambourine backup of singer Susan Holder, who is sporting an identical red perm to Manchester.

The star of the evening begins her audience banter by paying tribute to the late, great Bobby Short, the king of cabaret who held court at the Carlyle for 36 years, and whose portrait hangs in the hallway right outside the front door. "I know who you are," Short allegedly said to Manchester upon their introduction. Indeed, unless you have lived in a cave the last several decades, it is impossible not to know, at least subconsciously, who Manchester is.

She continues with one of her biggest hits, Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager's "Through the Eyes of Love", which sounds sweet and simple with the acoustic guitar accompaniment of Stephan Oberhoff. "We lost the Academy Award for Best Original Song to Shaft," Manchester blithely notes at the end of the song. "You know, how at every wedding they play the theme to Shaft." (Of course, this is not strictly true. While the theme from Shaft did win the 1971 Oscar for Best Original Song, "Through the Eyes of Love" lost to "It Goes Like It Goes" from Norma Rae in 1979.) Still, with the grand sweep of her voice (and just a little bit of snark), Manchester makes her point about how her music has left its emotional imprint on American culture.

Manchester's show, You Gotta Love the Life, is named after her 20th album, which features an eclectic mix of songs. She serenaded us with a mellow version of "Be My Baby" (the classic hit from the Ronettes), as well as the title track, a neo-Big Bang standard that harkens back to Chicago and Steely Dan.

During a rare moment, she speeds up the tempo for a Latin-infused rendition of Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the Music and Dance." Yes, she dances in her towering heels while Oberhoff plays a hot piano interlude. Oberhoff is a formidable musician, wowing the crowd multiple times with his jazzy improvisations. He and Holder back up Manchester for an impressive a cappella version of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Something Wonderful" from The King & I.

Of course, no Melissa Manchester concert would be complete without "Don't Cry Out Loud," her 1978 hit song by Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager. Manchester delivers this granddaddy of all power ballads with a scaled-down arrangement for voice and acoustic guitar, really allowing the lyrics to break free from the tyranny of studio production and speak for themselves. She looks altogether verklempt onstage before beautifully delivering the song to each individual member of the audience, a personal message of suppressed emotion to chase your dinner.

You'll have to resist the urge to cry out loud several times during this show. Forty years on, Melissa Manchester still knows how to bring down the house with her massive voice and even bigger heart.