Rhythm and bounce, tempo and pounce. Petula Clark has lost none of her fizz. Her warm, engaging new act at Feinstein’s at Loew’s Regency is the first time she’s appeared in a New York nightclub since the dear, departed and much-lamented days of the Waldorf-Astoria’s Empire Room. That was 1975, after she had already moved to Switzerland to get away from the punishing rigors of show business and escape the taxes, but she hasn’t been sitting around her home in Geneva knitting mittens.
To her millions of gold records, she’s added a critically acclaimed tour in Sunset Boulevard, starred in countless television specials, recorded a country-and-western album in Nashville and is now putting the finishing touches on a new CD in French with Charles Aznavour. She’s never taken the easy route by resting on her laurels. She’s always looking for the next challenge. She’s bored with making a career solely out of the ’60s rock songs that catapulted her to fame, she realizes glamour is dead, she’s not hung up on nostalgia. Although she was already playing Shirley Temple roles on the BBC in her native England and Wales when she was 7 years old, making films with Alec Guinness and Anthony Newley, and singing for the troops in World War II army camps, she says she does not want to wear wedgies or hairnets and remember the war years. Gone are the psychedelic go-go boots and Baby Snooks mini-ruffles she used to wear when she swept into the American conscience on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, riding the crest of the British pop invasion that carried with it the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. She hit it big with parents immediately. She was safe. She didn’t drink or smoke or do drugs and she was already 32. This is still true. Though rooted in the pop-jazz tradition, she wisely refuses to compete with the Madonnas and Gagas for hit singles. Since she will turn 80 this year, this is as it should be. But her frizzy mop of cotton-candy hair remains her trademark, and often, in the middle of a passionate riff, she shakes it vigorously, while the crowd clamors for more. This also makes sense, because at Feinstein’s she’s giving them what they want. She’s hip and contemporary, but in these oddly reversible times, she still does not smoke or drink or hang out with rock stars, even though she sings their songs with relish. She doesn’t think the answer to moving in new directions is either Cole Porter or hillbilly rock. So in the new act, which is packing them in through Feb. 4, she does a bit of everything.
The night I saw her, the sellout crowd applauded “Don’t Sleep in the Subway” two bars into the intro. Top 40 chartbusters and platinum hits Tony Hatch wrote for her years ago like “Who Am I?,” “Color My Love,” “I Couldn’t Live Without Your Love” and “I Know a Place” turned the room into pure pandemonium. Then, to soften the pace, she saluted Cole Porter and the Great American Songbook with “I Concentrate on You,” talked candidly about the first time she saw Edith Piaf at the Olympia in Paris and played competent piano on a sweet remembrance of the chanteuse populaire with a touching “La vie en Rose,” and as she shared a taste of Gershwin on “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “The Man I Love.” Those welcome respites from punching out pop lyrics provided the audience with a rare opportunity to hear her sing slowly and thoughtfully. Even more reassuring were her timeless renditions of songs from her two big Hollywood movie musicals—“How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” (Finian’s Rainbow) and “You and I” (Goodbye Mr. Chips). Throw in some Charlie Chaplin, a pinch of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and there’s something for everyone—from the top of the ladder to the bottom rung.
Her voice has lost none of its juke box power or resonance—not to mention her sardonic sense of humor. A witty comedy number about Duane Reade drug stores to the tune of “Downtown” is guaranteed to make you laugh. Irony has always been part of who Pet Clark really is. I’ll never forget a story she told me once about the “weirdest” thing that ever happened to her in Las Vegas. (What else is new?) She was singing “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar when a Jesus freak suddenly appeared on the stage with her, obviously stoned, and the whole audience went into shock. “He walked over to me, and said, ‘You’re not Mary Magdalene,’ and I didn’t know what to do, so I just humored him by saying, ‘No, I’m not, but you’re not Jesus Christ, either,’ and he said, ‘Yes, I am.’ Well, somebody in a tweed suit came and took him away, and we were surrounded by security police, and I felt really terrible about embarrassing him, so I asked if they would bring him backstage for a talk, and the stage manager said, ‘Well, for the moment, Jesus Christ is playing craps.’ So much for Vegas.”
Also amusing, although unplanned, was the puzzling and sometimes distracting look of her guitarist, drummer and bass player, who all look exactly alike. When they started snapping their fingers in unison on an ill-advised up tempo arrangement of “Miss Otis Regrets,” they became identical triplets. What I’d like is a new Petula Clark CD on which she sings beautiful classics with strings, starting a new chapter and opening a new door for a more sophisticated audience. Tried and true, this show is not exactly recommended for anyone seeking adventure. But if the songs start to sound like pearls from a nervous oyster, they send her world-wide fan club away happy. And that includes me.