In her current engagement at Manhattan’s Cafe Carlyle, marking her 10th consecutive year in the posh room, vet chanteuse-actress Eartha Kitt displayed her trademark kittenish charm and seductive humor, along with an assured and vigorous vocal talent.
The singer, who proudly announced her forthcoming 73rd birthday, offered a diverse repertoire of show tunes and jazz standards, plus a generous dash of lyrics in French and exotic languages, including an amusing nod to Rosemary Clooney with a hilarious Japanese version of “Come on-a My House.”
From Cole Porter’s “What is This Thing Called Love?” to Irving Berlin’s “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” — the latter accented with purring growls and wails — Kitt displayed a mastery of phrasing and a dedication to the story in the song.
In Rodgers and Hart’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” Kitt approached the second chorus with a rarely used, lightly swinging framework, and caressed the finale with studied allure. Another plus were the rare alternate lyrics and Jon Burr’s pointed and tidy bass accompaniment.
With a minimum of patter, Kitt sailed from song to song, often leaving little room for audience response.
Recalling career stepping stones — first as a dancer with the Katherine Dunham troupe, then a blossoming singing career, working with the likes of Ellis Larkin and the legendary Sidney Bechet — Kitt offered an affectionate tribute to her major influence: Billie Holiday.
In a medley that included “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Don’t Explain” and Ervin Drake’s timeless torch tune “Good Morning Heartache,” Kitt not only saluted Lady Day, but revealed her own skill with jazz and blues.
Musical director and arranger Donald Pippin suggested Portia Nelson’s irreverent praise of the Big Apple, “I Love/Hate New York” for Kitt’s new act, and it proved to be a fanciful highlight, with a hilarious coda when she breaks up as she gives a false start to “New York, New York.”
Johnny Mercer’s reflective, picturesque “When the World Was Young” melted into yet another Ervin Drake tune, “It Was a Very Good Year.” Taken with a gentle up-tempo chorus, the interpretation put a comfortable new spin on Sinatra’s classic version, with Kitt injecting a certain Sphinx-like wisdom.
It may be a half century old, but the Eartha Kitt landmark hit is still “C’est Si Bon,” and her alluring, sultry take continues to cast an enveloping spell.
The festive season was far from over for Kitt, whose encore produced the singer’s playful Christmas pleas to St. Nick, for yachts, deeds and assorted jewelry. Reprising her classic holiday hit, “Santa Baby,” the lady proved she could still wrap a song like a welcome gift package.