Literary Notes From Broadway's Rebecca Luker
By Nelson Pressley
The lyric soprano performed little-known songs
superbly. (Kennedy Center -
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 10,
2008; Page C03 Kennedy
A capacity crowd filled the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Saturday night
to hear Broadway star Rebecca Luker perform songs virtually nobody knows.
Everyone left happy, for Luker -- taking a brief break from her gig as the
mother in the musical "Mary Poppins" -- is a spellbinding soprano, effortlessly
charming and unfailingly sweet of sound. Luker's forte is not
lift-you-out-of-your-seat belting; she's a thoughtful lyric
soprano, which makes her ideal for the challenging, probing new material
she selected. The literary bent of "Songs for the Theater: The Next Generation" (the latest event in the
valuable Barbara Cook's Spotlight series) was immediately apparent in Paul Loesel and Scott Burkell's "Ohio:
1904," which was taken from diaries about watching the Wright brothers.
Detailed character and situation matched a soaring melody capturing the thrill of flight, and Luker unfurled the long refrain with a shimmering one.
Luker featured several settings of poems by the likes of Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay -- hardly traditional Broadway fare ("Cats" notwithstanding). Composer Ricky Ian Gordon
spun Marie Howe's achingly simple, elegiac poem "What the Living Do" into a
five-minute epic, with Luker flawlessly navigating the melody's dramatic
rush of quotidian existence and ultimate loss.
The Alabama-raised Luker settled into an authentic Southern twang for "Lovely
Lies," a regional character sketch and mother-daughter heart-to-heart (music by
Jeff Blumenkrantz, colloquial lyrics by Beth Blatt) that felt like a sung New
Yorker short story. Capers to the lighter side included frisky comic numbers
from the boudoir; "An Admission," about a lover's disappointing nude
figure, was composed by Luker's superb accompanist, Joseph Thalken, while
the Debra Barsha-Mark Campbell lark "He Never Did That Before" found Luker
in a torchy mode by way of Nashville.
The encore-to-the-encore was, like Luker herself, a throwback -- the 1929
Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II ballad "Why Was I Born?" Nothing showcased her
beautifully controlled voice to better effect, and the clearly delighted Luker
practically invited herself back to the Kennedy Center for a collection of
standards she says she's working on. They might want to give her more than one
night for that.