The very fact that a nonagenarian keeps leaving her luxury N.Y. digs to jet around the country in a one-woman show might seem so remarkable as to render any further comment moot. But Kitty Carlisle Hart, soon to be 96, neither asks for nor merits a critical pass. To anyone interested in the history of show business, Hart’s program of song standards and reminiscence is unforgettable, not because she’s performing it, but because she’s performing it with such rare grace and luminous artistry.
Opening montage of ingeniously edited clips of her appearances on Goodson-Todman gameshows reminds us whence we know and like her, so the lady enters, escorted by musical director David Lewis, on an enormous wave of goodwill.
Standing next to a grand piano for over an hour, she then proves she was not merely the 15-year doyenne of “To Tell the Truth” but a witness to, and frequent participant in, the greatest popular entertainments of the 20th century.
Among her “Old Friends” (her Sondheim opening number) were the likes of Kern, Berlin, Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein and Gershwin, and she tells fond stories that encompass the broad lines of their careers and her relationship with them. As an ingenue she sang “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” at a Hollywood party with coaching from composer Jerome Kern himself (who chided her for messing with his harmonies). She explains how George Gershwin wooed chanteuses up to his flat by requesting they help him work on “Summertime.” (“Women adored George and he returned the compliment — and I should know!,” she twinkles.)
Interspersed are a dozen or so numbers, not always the best of each tunesmith but those with meaning for her. She has lost some power and many of her top notes, of course, but so what? Close to pitch-perfect (and when she’s not, you can tell that she knows where the pitch is), she sells each number with the skill of an artist who has been living with and loving that tune for decades. Relying heavily on her written notes when speaking, she doesn’t need to look down at the music stand as she sings.
Lewis, whom Hart clearly adores, is a fine accompanist, keeping a protective eye on his singer as he guides her without a hitch through tempo and key changes.