Looking back over the years, I’ve seen and enjoyed Lonette McKee on screen in “Cotton Club” and “’Round Midnight” and on stage as Billie Holiday in the impressive “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” But there is much that I didn’t know about her, including the many songs that she has written that we get to sample in her new cabaret debut at the Oak Room Supper Club of the Algonquin Hotel (April 5-30) in a show titled “Can’t Help Lovin’.”
Her image today is different than in those earlier days, when her trim figure was part of her overall impression. Through the years she has gained weight (who hasn’t?), and her voice has been enriched and deepened, especially when she pours her heart and soul into a number like Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” or her lovingly delivered encore selection “Bill,” by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern.
On opening night her demeanor was ultra casual, almost like a young girl deciding to have fun singing sing for a group of friends. Studied or impromptu, McKee stressed utter informality, bantering with her pianist and musical director Bette Sussman in trying to figure out the right order of songs. (Kahlil Kwame Bell is on drums, Lee Nadel on bass for the engagement.) McKee’s style enables her to cutely cozy up to her audience.
Five of her own songs were included in the program. She began with something she wrote “years ago”—“Colors of the Love of My Life.” Then, saying that “only an 18-year-old could have written this,” she launched into her “Do to Me.” In another of her compositions, “Maybe There Are Reasons,” she sang while playing piano, and was joined in a keyboard duet by Sussman. “Watch the Birds” was yet another example of her songwriting creativity, as was “Sweeter and Sweeter.”
There were selections reflecting her career, and the way she massaged them demonstrated her skill at excavating feelings within, as with her rendition of “Ill Wind,” by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, from “Cotton Club,” and “Hooked on Your Love,” by Curtis Mayfield, from her movie “Sparkle.” She also reached into the impressive film “’Round Midnight” with the George and Ira Gershwin number, “How Long Has This Been Going On?”
Other choices enabling her to show how much passion she can extract from a song included “We the People,” by Fats Waller, “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone” by Woodrow “Buddy” Johnson, and “Lover Man,” by James Edward Davis, Ram Ramirez and Jimmy Sherman.
Ending the show came almost as an afterthought. “I’m outta here,” she concluded, leaving the crowd with the intimate feeling of having shared what almost seemed like a private little concert. At the Oak Room, Algonquin Hotel, 59 West 44th Street. Reservations: 212-419-9331 or firstname.lastname@example.org.