Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson
(© Timothy White)
Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson
(© Timothy White)
While Feinstein's at the Regency still devotes much of its season to traditional cabaret artists and Broadway performers, the swank supper club occasionally extends invitations to performers from the worlds of pop, country, and R&B, such as Crystal Gayle, Melissa Manchester, and Freda Payne. For the next 10 days, it's providing a perch for the first extended nightclub engagement of R&B singer-songwriters Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, and they've made themselves right at home with a well put-together, often exciting act Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing that is part trip down memory lane and part preview of possible greatness to come.

The latter section comes about halfway through their 75-minute set when the seemingly ageless couple present three numbers from Invisible Life, a new musical they're writing based on the novel by the popular African-American author E. Lynn Harris. "I Don't Ride That Train" is the driving response of Raymond, a sexually confused man being hit on by another man, while "Born This Way," sung by the out-loud-and-proud Kyle, is the kind of anthemic song destined to be performed at every Gay Pride parade for years to come. The third song, "God Has Love for Everyone," has a nice gospel tinge to it but is otherwise unmemorable.

The pair chose to spotlight their own work almost exclusively -- the one exception being Ashford's playful take on Screaming Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell on You" -- and there's always a certain pleasure in hearing authors give voice to their own work. And while it's no easy feat to compete with the hitmakers who made their work famous, such as Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Chaka Khan, and Whitney Houston, the pair are accomplished enough vocalists to do justice to such top 40 classics as "You're All I Need to Get By," "I'm Every Woman," "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing," and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." (Then again, they managed to upstage themselves by bringing up soul crooner Freddie Jackson for just a minute or so of guest vocalizing.)

Ironically, the one song with which Ashford & Simpson rose to the top of the charts, "Solid," failed to fully catch fire without the studio special effects. As Simpson noted, the onstage band of four had to do the work of the eight musicians they usually tour with. Still, if there had been room in the packed house to get up and dance, plenty of patrons would have done so.

The couple's patter was relatively minimal, though Ashford's story about their two meetings with Motown founder Berry Gordy -- the first came after Ray Charles' rendition of "Let's Get Stoned" became a hit, the second was when they flew back to Detroit unannounced to play him "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" -- was wonderfully amusing. But the sharpest talk came from Simpson; for the evening's encore, she spoke movingly about remembering the unsung heroes of September 11 before launching into a heartfelt rendition of "Reach Out and Touch Somebody's Hand." It was just the right ending, something that rarely happens in cabaret.