By Betsyann Faiella
Show business royalty in the name of Lorna Luft took the stage at Feinstein’s/54 Below on April 6th, the opening night of a two show engagement which concludes April 8th. Luft gave a performance long on charm and classic American Songbook, singing to a room full of ardent fans. Luft was polished, warm and funny throughout the entire evening. After beginning her set with Styne/Comden/Green’s, “Comes Once in a Lifetime,” she launched into a substantial series of Johnny Mercer songs. After singing a bit of “Accentuate the Positive” (Arlen/Mercer), and a shorter piece of “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” (Warren/Mercer), Luft took a few minutes to reminisce about her love and admiration of Mercer, his humor and his very long affair with her mother, Judy Garland. In the medley of nine Mercer songs that followed, Luft’s wit shone in her version of “Goody Goody” (Malneck/Mercer), as she played the revenge theme of the lyrics slyly and hilariously.
Her emotional connection to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “A Cockeyed Optimist” was deeply rendered, after a gentle reference to our current “interesting times” which she says, make her feel as though her head is in a blender. Then she surprised the audience by introducing her friend and cast mate from Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, the super-talented Jeremy Benton who is currently playing Bob Hope in Cagney. Benton joined her in a medley of songs about spring, trading leads and offering a high-spirited tap break on “April Showers” (Silver/deSylva). Their pairing was an opportunity for great stories from the road, and they didn’t disappoint, recounting a theater they played that was populated by bats. Luft spent the remainder of that engagement using Benton as a human shield.
The late Peter Allen figured into the set nicely, as he was her hero from the time they met when she was 13, as well as her brother-in-law. Luft gave a relaxed performance of “Everything Old Is New Again” and three additional Allen songs, before turning her attention to Burt Bacharach in whose musical, Promises, Promises (with lyricist Hal David, book by Neil Simon), she made her Broadway debut at 19. What could be bad about a nine-song Bacharach medley? For this reviewer, nothing at all.
Luft closed the show with one of her mother’s signature songs, “Rock-a-bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody” (Schwartz/Lewis/Young). Her band was excellent, led by her husband, pianist-arranger Colin Freeman, with Jim Donica on bass and Joshua Priest on drums. The group supported her beautifully and if they weren’t mentioned a lot here, it’s because they aren’t the story.
The story is Luft, daughter of the legend, Judy Garland, sister of the legend, Liza Minnelli, sister-in-law of icon Peter Allen. Her life has been populated by the who’s who of entertainment, the most brilliant composers and lyricists and fellow entertainers. In her show tonight, she celebrated the writers she knew and loves, she powered through some hoarseness, dedicated her set to another family friend, Don Rickles, and sold every song and told every story with gusto, sincerity and a knowingness only a veteran insider has. It was an evening of pure entertainment, delivered with complete class and deserving of its standing ovation.