Literary Notes From Broadway's Rebecca Luker

The lyric soprano performed little-known songs superbly.
The lyric soprano performed little-known songs superbly. (Kennedy Center - Kennedy Center)
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By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 10, 2008

A capacity crowd filled the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Saturday night to hear Broadway star Rebecca Luker perform songs virtually nobody knows. Everyone left happy, for Luker -- taking a brief break from her gig as the mother in the musical "Mary Poppins" -- is a spellbinding soprano, effortlessly charming and unfailingly sweet of sound.

Luker's forte is not lift-you-out-of-your-seat belting; she's a thoughtful lyric soprano, which makes her ideal for the challenging, probing new material she selected. The literary bent of "Songs for the Theater: The Next Generation" (the latest event in the valuable Barbara Cook's Spotlight series) was immediately apparent in Paul Loesel and Scott Burkell's "Ohio: 1904," which was taken from diaries about watching the Wright brothers. Detailed character and situation matched a soaring melody capturing the thrill of flight, and Luker unfurled the long refrain with a shimmering tone.

Luker featured several settings of poems by the likes of Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay -- hardly traditional Broadway fare ("Cats" notwithstanding). Composer Ricky Ian Gordon spun Marie Howe's achingly simple, elegiac poem "What the Living Do" into a five-minute epic, with Luker flawlessly navigating the melody's dramatic rush of quotidian existence and ultimate loss.

The Alabama-raised Luker settled into an authentic Southern twang for "Lovely Lies," a regional character sketch and mother-daughter heart-to-heart (music by Jeff Blumenkrantz, colloquial lyrics by Beth Blatt) that felt like a sung New Yorker short story. Capers to the lighter side included frisky comic numbers from the boudoir; "An Admission," about a lover's disappointing nude figure, was composed by Luker's superb accompanist, Joseph Thalken, while the Debra Barsha-Mark Campbell lark "He Never Did That Before" found Luker in a torchy mode by way of Nashville.

The encore-to-the-encore was, like Luker herself, a throwback -- the 1929 Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II ballad "Why Was I Born?" Nothing showcased her beautifully controlled voice to better effect, and the clearly delighted Luker practically invited herself back to the Kennedy Center for a collection of standards she says she's working on. They might want to give her more than one night for that.

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