It’s common to talk about the British Invasion of our music, whether you mean the pop groups of the 60’s or the musicals of the 80’s. But last night at Feinstein’s/54 Below, New York City was conquered by the Irish, as Dublin born Rachel Tucker took us by storm in a cabaret evening all too rare for her on this side of the pond. Like everyone else in the room, I surrendered utterly and immediately to her talent.
Her opening number, The Wizard and Iwas begun from the audience, in the dark…very possibly just because the follow spot operator was as mesmerized by her voice as the rest of us. When the spotlight finally lit upon her flashing eyes and fiery red hair, we immediately saw the fierceness of spirit that makes her so remarkable.
Like everyone else who loves show tunes, I’ve heard this song from Wicked almost to the point where I don’t need to ever hear it again. But Ms. Tucker’s rendition was a revelation. I’m used to hearing it sung by fervent but green-on-the-inside-as-well-as-the-outside twentysomethings. Ms. Tucker is just a few years older, but what a difference it makes. Her interpretation brought out not just Elpheba’s eager anticipation, but also a wisdom and worldliness which made the song far more resonant for me. Not surprisingly, she was a highly acclaimed Elpheba in the West End for three years in addition to having played the role on Broadway in 2016.
Ms. Tucker is so good with accents you’d have thought she was American born, until she stopped to confess in her best native brogue, “Bless me for I have sinned. It’s been a year since I’ve performed at Feinstein’s/54 Below!”
It isn’t easy to go from a whisper to a belt as a singer with support, good tone, and emotional commitment. Ms. Tucker’s range is great indeed. Whether plumbing the depths of her soul in her throaty lower range, or shaking the rafters with her powerful belt and clarion high notes, she is a consummate technician. But technique without heart is empty. Ms. Tucker is all heart. As the superb singing actor she is, her impulse to sing comes from her need to connect with us as a person. Like all great technicians, her technique becomes invisible and simply supports her passion.
As much as she moved me, I won’t say we’re always moved by the very same things. Her introduction to her rendition of Bob Dylan’s Has Anybody Seen My Love set it up as one of the great moments in the theater for her, when she heard the song in the new Dylan juke box musical from which this song comes, “The Girl from the North Country”. For me, as wonderful as she was, the lyric was too rambling and unfocused to make a great song. Yes, I have just dissed Bob Dylan.
It seemed quite natural to hear that her father was a performer who literally sang for his supper, and that he often performed flanked by Ms. Tucker and her brother when they were children. At one performance meant for family when she was only nine, she was discovered by a club owner, immediately turned Equity, and has been singing professionally ever since. Ms. Tucker’s tale of how she had to give up her maiden name of Kelly when she joined Equity was hysterically delivered in her rewrite of the lyric to Kander and Ebb’s song Liza with a “Z” as Tucker with a “T”. Just to be clear, as the song points out wryly, Tucker is not pronounced with an “F.”
She cheerily described herself as a “Street urchin from Belfast” to set up her outstanding rendition of You’ve Got to Pick a Pocket or Two from Lionel Bart’s Oliver! In that musical version of Oliver Twist, this song is sung by the aging leader of the young gang of thieves, Fagan. After instructing her very capable musical director, John Ranger, to give her a “dirty swing” tempo, Ms. Tucker roamed through the audience, picking hearts and pockets (literally!), while making self-serving larceny seem as sexy as Madonna in Dick Tracy singing Sooner or Later, or Marilyn Monroe singing Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.
The States have had the pleasure of Ms. Tucker’s company for the last six weeks, because she’s been at the Williamstown Theater Festival doing a developmental production of the new musical Lempicka, based on the life of art deco era artist Tamara de Lempicka. To perform the moving duet You Matter to Me from this show, she brought fellow Lempicka cast member Andrew Samonsky. Mr. Samonsky is a popular leading man on and around Broadway. I’ve enjoyed his work in the past as Lt. Cable in Lincoln Center’s South Pacific and in the original company of Little Miss Sunshine, among others. This song had an aching intimacy for which Mr. Somansky’s lilting tenor was perfectly suited, and their voices were beautifully matched in close harmony. Look for Mr. Samonsky coming to where you may live, as the leading actor in the first national tour of Come From Away.
Ms. Tucker gave a loving nod to New York in her fine rendition of Billy Joel’s Piano Man. She then gave us a passionate rendition of another song from Lempicka called Woman Is. I’m very eager to see this show fully performed now.
She also related how she got her break on a British televised competition to find the actress to play Nancy in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s revival of Oliver! She didn’t win, but Lord Weber chose her over an opponent to win a sing off. She closed her regular show with the most beautifully acted and sung rendition of As Long As He Needs Me, I have ever enjoyed. She sang most of the song very quietly, but with total conviction, as if she were standing right next to each of us, sharing the deepest feelings of her heart. Then the key changed, the music swelled, and she shook the chandeliers with her musical cry from the heart. Her encore number, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, was beautifully sung and plenty loud. But it was anticlimactic for me, after the emotional peak she had taken us to.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been charmed by Ms. Tucker. Her performance as the original Meg in The Last Ship was the emotional center of that show. I’ve regretted not having had the chance to hear more of her since. All I can tell you is, I bought her album, asked her to autograph it, and will cherish it. NYC is lucky to have her back, if only through tonight’s performance. I hear there are a couple empty seats yet to be had for her last show on August 11. If you hurry, you might be among the lucky few to get one of them.
Rachel Tucker: Feinstein’s/54 Below, 254 West 54th St. You can catch Rachel tomorrow night at August 11th at 7pm