Still vibrant and vital at 81, Eartha Kitt hasn't lost her voice, her legs, or her wits. On the first night of her dynamite new show at the Café Carlyle, she didn't drop a lyric. Just as she did 56 years ago when she starred in New Faces of 1952 on Broadway, Kitt commanded the stage and captivated the audience.
I wasn't around in 1952, but I have listened to the cast album many times. And it's reassuring-and remarkable-that even after more than half a century, Kitt can purr, growl, and vamp her way through songs of every vintage. What's more, she knows how to work an intimate room: Kitt flirts with and teases nearly all the front-row audience members. Those sitting farther away will be just as bewitched by this ageless chanteuse.
There may be trouble ahead ahead goes the lyric of her first number, Irving Berlin's Let's Face the Music and Dance. It's the start of a fast-paced series of songs that lets Kitt grab the audience before engaging in any patter. She makes the most of every suggestive lyric, like Want to take me cruising in Champagne Taste. She bats her enormous fake eyelashes at a young audience member during Too Young to be Meant for Me. And when there's a lyric about needing a diamond, not a zircon, Kitt directs it at a gentleman of a certain age. Though she teases her audience, above all she laughs at herself. Her slinky sex-kitten stage persona is a carefully crafted act, one that she's spent a lifetime perfecting. But she doesn't take it, or herself, too seriously.
Kitt shows off her limberness during Uska Dara, arching her back while doing a few dance moves. A little later, after she recalls seeing Edith Piaf perform, Kitt gives a full-throttle rendition of La Vie en Rose (with audio enhancement that isn't really necessary). While she ends most numbers with a vibrato-fueled big finish, she gives Cole Porter's What Is This Thing Called Love a nicely wistful ending. With her unique voice, Kitt puts her stamp on everything she sings. Her take on I Will Survive, which starts slowly before accelerating, is so intense that one almost forgets Gloria Gaynor's disco version.
She follows that showstopper with one of her signature tunes, C'est Si Bon,&quotmaking it sound as sassy and fresh as it did in the early fifties. Kitt then gets reflective on Alone. Written by Daryl Waters, her fine pianist and musical director, the ballad traces the highs and lows of Kitt's life and career. Since she is above all a survivor, it's apt that the evening ends on an upbeat note with her exuberant rendition of Porter's Just One of Those Things. It's easy to feel like one is in a swank cabaret in 1950s Paris or New York seeing a sexy young newcomer named Eartha Kitt. But it's even more satisfying knowing that she has been around for so long and can still deliver a first-rate performance in an elegant boite.
In addition to Waters, Kitt gets excellent support from a tight quartet. And the recently refurbished Café Carlyle looks better than ever. It's too bad the cover charge is so high (ranging from $65 for bar seating Tuesday-Thursday to $100 plus dinner Friday-Saturday). Maybe the room could offer a discount night for aspiring cabaret singers, who could certainly learn a lot from watching the magnificent Kitt in action.
Kitt performs at the Café Carlyle through July 5.