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Rita Wilson at Café Carlyle

The actress and producer makes her Café Carlyle debut with an evening of original songs.

Rita Wilson makes her debut performance alongside pianist Alex Navarro and music director Andrew Doolittle at Café Carlyle.
(© Michael Wilhoite for Café Carlyle)

She's a little bit country...and a whole lot tearful folk rock. Rita Wilson is diving into the deep end this month. Not only is she making her Café Carlyle debut, but she's doing it with a program of mostly original songs. This is a huge gamble for the risk-averse actress-producer (and wife of Tom Hanks) turned singer-songwriter. Luckily, it pays off in an enjoyable, if somewhat raw, evening of idiosyncratic cabaret that is as evocative of Shania Twain as it is of Joni Mitchell.

"I'm half Bulgarian and half Greek," she tells us early on. "So I guess that makes me bleak." You would never tell from her personality, however, which is habitually cheerful and upbeat. She goes on to hypothesize that her apprehension about taking risks is rooted in her upbringing, especially after years of hearing how her father escaped from Communist Bulgaria. "He took enough risks for all of us." Little wonder that she's always wanted to be a singer but has just recently taken the plunge.

The music (composed with a host of cowriters) harks back to the fierce female singer-songwriters of the '60s and '70s: women like Carole King, Carly Simon, and Bonnie Raitt. Wilson's black fringe cardigan with gold embroidery is reminiscent of Stevie Nicks, making it seem that she is quite literally wearing her influences on her sleeve. Joni Mitchell even gets a special shout-out in Wilson's tribute song, "Joni" (cowritten with Jason Reeves and Nelly Joy), a sweet and dreamy ballad that incorporates many of Mitchell's more popular song titles. It sounds just like a Mitchell song, even if the lyrics are not nearly as devastating in their poetry and specificity.

Wilson sings a beautiful rendition of Mitchell's "River," which also appeared on her 2012 debut album, AM/FM. As she makes a vocal ascent on the word "fly," it seems as though Wilson's voice might crack mid-flight, but it never does. She maintains her understated vocal integrity throughout the evening, making you wonder if her nervousness and vulnerability are just a guise for her hidden strength.

Though Wilson does not have a particularly powerful or resonant voice, there is a uniquely smoky, almost sniffly quality to it that proves a good fit for her song catalog of painfully reflective and emotional ballads, but it is less effective in her up-tempo songs, which often require her band to sing backup.

Thankfully, the four-piece ensemble of multitalented performers is up to the task. Pianist Alex Navarro not only sings but also plays keyboards and glockenspiel (sometimes simultaneously). Music director Andrew Doolittle is constantly at Wilson's side, a reassuring presence strumming the guitar and singing harmony.

Those up-tempo numbers are on the twangier side. Songs like "Along for the Ride" and "What You See Is What You Get" have a country pop flavor. The Shania Twain-esque "Girls Night In" makes several references to twerking, which Wilson wisely does not attempt onstage, opting instead for her own sultry mom dance that involves putting her arms in the air and rocking her body back and forth in jubilation.

For all its charm, the evening often feels like the final presentation of a cabaret class. Wilson keeps her note cards on a music stand so that they're never out of reach. She makes no effort to hide that this is a new thing for her and that she's still getting the hang of it. This may disappoint fans of more seasoned cabaret performers, but it's impossible to not like Wilson. Her honesty and sincerity make you root for her as she unveils each new song. This affable stage presence, taken with a program of material well-matched to her vocals, makes for a fine cabaret debut. I can't wait to see what she accomplishes next as she heads down this new career path.