With her Jerome Kern tribute show the renowned soprano scored a hit on stage – good thing they recorded it.
by Stephen Mosher Mar. 28, 2021
One of the benefits of being a lover of the cabaret and club art form is composer-centric shows and CDs. Looking back at the past, when the cafes and speakeasies were populated by headliners like Eartha Kitt and Julie London, a night of entertainment featured a variety of music composed by all the different songwriters of the day. As those composers became more successful and famous, as years passed by, as songwriters passed away, there developed a demand for tribute shows and albums. How many of us first learned about the Cole Porter cannon from Ella Fitzgerald‘s songbook albums? Wasn’t it considerate of Lady Ella to do all that compilation work for us?
Today there is no shortage of show or recording opportunities for specific composer focus, but it’s hard to believe that any show or CD combination could be as engaging or inviting as CAN’T HELP SINGING by Raissa Katona Bennett. The show itself is one that Ms. Bennett has been doing for a while, and one certainly hopes she won’t stop doing it any time soon, because it is quite superbly put together, judging solely by the live recording made at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency. Complete with a mini-overture to kick things off, there is a suggestion that the next hour is going to be one of sheer enchantment, with RKB trilling all of Kern’s most romantic tunes, and trill she does, right from the start. It’s a calculated risk by Raissa because there is a division amongst listeners when it comes to sopranos – some revel in the vibrato of the upper register, while others balk at the thought of an hour of Jeanette MacDonald (and the opening title track is full-on MGM silver screen soprano). If, however, there is anything people should know about Raissa Katona Bennett it is that she is more than just any one thing – and as the album proceeds, the thrill that comes with the trill is getting to know some of the sides of the woman at the microphone.
Making an astute choice to follow up the bright, bouncy opening number with a jazzy “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” placed in a lower part of her register, Bennett segues from sweet to sexy, particularly assisted by the subtle sounds wafting off of Tom Hubbard‘s bass, letting the listener in on the joke: Kern, like Bennett, was about more than one thing. Bennett and director Eric Michael Gillett orchestrated a journey for the audience, and the sixteen-track jaunt ranges from lush to saucy, from epic to naughty, with Bennett showing off her acting skills by focusing not only on Kern’s music but on the lyrics of his equally famous collaborators. An actress of some note, RKB seems particularly focused on telling stories about women with strong personalities and definite points of view – note the trifecta that is a tongue-in-cheek “She Didn’t Say Yes” followed by an aloof “Hey Fella” and closed out by the flashy “I’ll Be Hard To Handle” (she belts, too, quelle surprise) and the message is clear: Raissa Katona Bennett is one of the empowered women about which she sings, and she’s here to represent, for all of them.https://22d40b0adf783d7d1254a1e1bdb98233.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
Both the album and Bennett’s vocals are so good that writing a song-by-song analysis would not only be easy, it would be a treat, but that would take the fun out of the journey to be enjoyed by the listener; it would, though, be folly to leave unmentioned a medley impressive and lengthy incorporating three songs from “Show Boat” alongside “Don’t Ever Leave Me” and “The Night Was Made For Love”. Not only does Ms. Bennett rise to the epic challenge, so did her musical director/arranger Don Rebic, whose work on the entire disc is beyond compare, including piano playing that will quicken your pulse. The gentleman warrants special tribute for the arrangement of six different medleys that allow RKB to deliver unto will-be grateful listeners fifteen of Kern’s most important compositions – an act of generosity that cannot be repaid. Ms. Bennett is, indeed, fortunate in her collaborative associations, and her audience is the lucky beneficiary of their collective efforts on this sublime variety of entertainment, all stemming from one composer.