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Can't Help Lovin'

Tony Award winner Lonette McKee's new cabaret show at the Oak Room offers both lustrous singing and awkward patter. logo
Lonette McKee
The sharp divide between lustrous singing and awkward stage demeanor is painfully displayed in Lonette McKee's Can't Help Lovin', now at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room. Indeed, the strained evening could just as accurately be dubbed Can't Help Being Lonette.

In this show, which is comprised of pop standards, original compositions, and songs from shows and movies in which she's appeared, The Tony Award-winning star often displays the kind of moving emoting that marked her acclaimed turns in such musicals as Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill and Show Boat.

But her undeniable vocal power is constantly undercut by flighty between-song patter that is more distracting than ingratiating, including a lengthy discourse on TV's Dancing With the Stars and a seemingly interminable story about searching her apartment for a lost pet bird.

The performer delivers beautiful renditions of songs like "When a Woman Loves a Man," "How Long Has This Been Going On," and "Lover Man" that are infused with her trademark smoky sensuality. Her versatility is also well illustrated with numbers as disparate as Fats Waller's rollicking "We the People," Billie Holiday's wrenching "God Bless the Child," and Curtis Mayfield's soulful "Hooked on Your Love," from the film Sparkle. Her encore, "Bill," (from Show Boat), is marked by a simplicity and emotional truth that is simply stunning.

She also performs several of her own pop-soul flavored songs, including such upbeat tunes as "Colors of the Love of My Life" and "Do to Me," which she wrote decades earlier.

At the performance I attended, McKee also seemed slightly adrift at times -- perhaps as a result of opening night nerves. She was frequently confused as to which song she was to sing next and misidentified the names of composers. Fortunately, musical director Bette Sussman -- leading an accomplished trio including bassist Lee Nadel and drummer Kahlil Kwame Bell -- was an anchoring presence, tolerantly guiding the singer through her paces with an air of amused authority.

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