On the evening of Sunday, July 21st, San Gabriel Valley’s own Lisa Donahey, a terrific singer and versatile performer, finished her second of two sets at Vitello’s in Studio City (the first one taking place on Friday, July 19th), as part of the Feinstein’s at Vitello’s entertainment series, where she celebrated her 50th “Birthday Bash” in a razzmatazz and hilariously autobiographical style. After years of being a Southland darling and plying her trade as a session singer on soundtracks, an on-camera talent on various TV shows, and as a musical-theatre leading lady, it was certainly a suitable time to say “cheers.”
Donahey was flanked by two outstanding backup singers in Lindsay Dodoras and Billye Johnstone, along with a six-person virtuoso band, including David Arana on piano, Sherry Luchette on bass, Dave Johnstone (husband to Billye) on drums, Pathik Desai on guitar, Kyle O’Donnell playing the saxophone, and Dexter Warren (who is also Lisa’s husband) manning the trumpet. The occasion epitomized the Feinstein’s at Vitello’s cachet, where guests dine in and are dazzled with some of the region’s finest and most up-close-and-personal extravaganzas.
As far as birthdays go, one’s 50th is a milestone and marks a time for reflection, which the self-aware Donahey, an enthralling storyteller with a knack for off-the-cuff comedy, appropriately used to her advantage. As the sold-out crowd chanted “Lisa, Lisa,” the 1994 Berklee College of Music graduate appeared in a gorgeous, multicolored dress, layered in rows of fringes, which Donahey quipped could double as a car wash if she shook side to side. It marked an auspicious beginning for the one-time tarantula owner who willingly shared sometimes embarrassing portraits of herself from her childhood up until nearly present day. In only two hours, we seemingly grew up with Lisa all over again, smiling and laughing with her at pictures demarcating various stages of her life: as a baby with an Alfalfa-like hairdo, as a child in the Girl Scouts, and as Richard Simmons on a much later Halloween, to name a few. Not to mention, as we discovered, her crush on Fonzie (of “Happy Days”) continues unabated with socks of Henry Winkler’s likeness that are still in pristine condition.
Best of all, Donahey hasn’t resisted turning 50; she has rather embraced it, even going so far as to poke fun at herself by reading farcical song titles off a satirized album cover sponsored by AARP – “The Fabulous 50s” – with so-called hits such as “I’m Hip and I Got a New One.” Needless to say, it was just the right kind of light-hearted fare that accompanied Donahey’s variety-show spectacle.
Donahey also got the audience actively engaged by playing prize-winning games like “How well do you know Lisa?” along with encouraging each table of attendees – many of them comprised of friends, family, and those introduced to Lisa’s infectious panache for the very first time — to take out their kazoos from a mystery bag and hum along with the band.
As a singer, whether it be as a solo star or an ensemble performer, the former shot-putter has continually reinvented herself, covering a swath of music genres by either playing her own compositions or paying homage to the greats of today and yesteryear. Refreshingly, Donahey and her band don’t follow the conventional road either, appealing instead to inventive medleys (“or mash-ups as you millennials call it”) to cover recognizable songs. For example, they combined the instrumental accompaniment of John Lennon’s “Imagine” with the lyrics in Van Halen’s “Jump,” infused Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory” with the climactic part in “Shallow,” and mix-matched Foreigner’s “Feels like the First Time” and “Hot-Blooded” with Carole King and James Taylor’s “I Feel the Earth Move.” In a similar vein, sometimes the arrangement of a song was completely reshuffled, to the enjoyment of the audience, as in Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” which was played with a throng of ukuleles.
Of course, when she wasn’t keeping the audience on their toes by taking pleasingly unpredictable vocal turns, Donahey demonstrated her soaring notes, control, powerful belt, evocative phrasing, and impressive range with tunes like Linda Ronstadt’s “Try Me Again,” Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady,” and Oleta Adams’ poignant and relatable “I’ve Got to Sing My Song.”
But where she really shined was by sharing her original works, many of which were written during her stay at Berklee. “Stranded” and the duet of “Another Time, Another Place” (with Roger Befeler of “Beauty and the Beast” national-touring fame), for instance, highlighted the hopeless romantic in Donahey, while the finger-snapping jazz a capella of “Joe” (with “do-dun-dum” bass notes provided by Befeler and friend Don Lucas) accentuated her limitless musicality, and the rap, “Stealin’ Underwear,” reminded of her playfulness and intrepidness about entering the skid-marked comical world of the absurd.
Last, but not least, Lindsay Dodoras and Billye Johnstone deserve ample recognition for staying right there with, and supporting, Donahey’s robust vocals, harmonizing with her to perfection, and even getting their own moment in the spotlight with a dynamic rendition of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancin’ in the Street.”
Ultimately, if several successful shows in her name are any indication, Donahey is not just seriously talented, she’s here to stay for many more years to come with her top-notch musicianship, brand of riotous humor, and sheer geniality on stage. Certainly, while the “overnight” sensation has its place, there’s something to be said for those who have paid their dues the old-fashioned way, which the humble Donahey has done, earning the right to glow spectacularly on her birthday and on many future dates. Donahey’s next engagement at Feinstein’s at Vitello’s is on Sunday, September 22nd, in a show titled “Songs in the Key of She.”
For more information about Feinstein’s at Vitello’s, please visit feinsteinsatvitellos.com
And for more details on Lisa Donahey, visit lisadonahey.com