It's often said there's no substitute for experience, and Tony Award winner Linda Lavin proved the truth of that adage at the first of her two shows at 54 Below on Monday night. (She returns on Sunday, September 23 at 3pm.)
Having spent more than five decades performing in clubs, Lavin made the packed house feel like they were her private audience of nearest and dearest. It was a doubly impressive feat given that it was the first night of Rosh HaShanah -- she wanted to know if we were all having brisket -- and that the crowd included such luminaries as Carol Burnett and Harold Prince (seated together and often broadly smiling), John Davidson, Jayne Houdyshell, Penny Fuller, Sheldon Harnick, Nicky Silver, Michael Mayer, Donna Lynne Champlin, and the Nunziata Brothers.
Lavin's expertise was also handy in making a decidedly eclectic songlist, which ranged from classics such as "So Many Stars" and "My Foolish Heart" to lesser-known gems as Donald Fagen's "Between the Raindrops," feel intensely personal. Her patter was sometimes humorous, occasionally informative, and consistently gracious.
Two of the show's highlights, not surprisingly, were tunes she debuted on Broadway: Mary Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim's deliciously funny "The Boy From" (from The Mad Show), which she performed with a hilarious and deliberate lack of affect, and Charles Strouse and Lee Adams' delightful "You've Got Possibilities" (from It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's Superman), which benefited even more from a jazzy arrangement by musical director Billy Stritch.
Her interplay with her husband – and drummer – Steve Bakunas on "You Better Love Me (While You May)" was little short of priceless, as was her repartee with the young, amazing jazz violinist Aaron Weinstein, who joined her on a set of standards including "It Might As Well Be Spring" and "There's A Small Hotel."
And it was a rare treat to hear Lavin accompany herself on the piano for a heartfelt medley of "Long Ago and Far Away" and "It Amazes Me." It's great to discover that even a veteran star such as Lavin has facets some of us still haven't seen.