By Stanford Friedman
2015 was a bit of a roller coaster for actress/producer/singer Rita Wilson. While co-starring in Larry David’s Broadway hit, Fish in the Dark, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and left the show for a month to undergo surgery. Now, declared cancer-free, she is about to release her second album, simply entitled Rita Wilson, following a well-received 2012 collection of cover tunes, AM/FM. Looking great, and sounding even greater, Ms. Wilson is kicking off a nationwide promo tour with an intimate residency at the Café Carlyle through March 5.
Touching on her tough year, but not dwelling on it, the singer is not asking for our sympathy and, after all, it would be hard to feel too sorry for her, what with that left hand ablaze in sparkly diamonds as she winningly delivers charming love songs to her husband, Tom Hanks, who, on opening night, sat just several feet away from the stage, drinking it in. She offers a mix of up-tempo numbers and ballads as well, that find her, at turns, sobbing in her room in the intense number, Crying Crying, and partying middle-aged style in the raucous Girls Night In. Her voice is seductive and inviting and she performs with a disarming smile that seems to be saying, “I can’t believe I’m getting away with this.” Tonally, she reminded me a little of Vicki Peterson from the Bangles, but her vibe is more optimistic and relaxed, a West coast warmth that felt welcoming on a lousy February night that was spitting down ice. She’s backed by a solid rhythm quartet featuring some smooth strumming and background vocals from Steve Fekete, the former lead guitarist for Avril Lavigne.
As for the between-song patter, Ms. Wilson warns us of her penchant for bad jokes then goes on to demonstrate that she isn’t kidding. I think I heard the walls of the Carlyle actually moan when she delivered the one about how she was promised a hip crowd, but that this night’s group turned out to be an audience full of new hips. She also has the audacity to follow an amusing tale about her sole experience trying Botox with a rocking version of The Weeknd’s dark ode to cocaine, Can’t Feel My Face. But no matter, she is having so much fun up there that, to paraphrase a younger kindred spirit, we shake it off.
If her new songs often imply that money can’t buy happiness, they also demonstrate that being well-connected can buy catchiness. She co-created her album with no fewer than 17 very established writers and producers including Kara DioGuardi, Dan Wilson (who co-wrote Someone Like You, with Adele) and Kristian Bush from Sugarland. There was a country tinge to many of the offerings, which set toes tapping regardless of any hip conditions in the house. One number, Along for the Ride, co-written with Annie Bosko, is in the same vein as Sheryl Crow’s Soak Up the Sun and seems especially poised for anthemic glory.
Rita Wilson performs through March 5 at Café Carlyle.
Tuesday – Saturday at 8:45pm with a Saturday late show at 10:45pm. Reservations: 212.744.1600 or www.ticketweb.com. Café Carlyle is located in The Carlyle, A Rosewood Hotel, 35 East 76th Street, at Madison Avenue, thecarlyle.com.