Rosie O’Donnell had a unique idea last night on the stage of the Palace Theater. She was raising money for her Rosie’s Broadway Kids, and this was the point when rich people bid on donated items like trips to Anguilla and two tickets to a Broadway show and dinner with its star.

She had none of that to offer, she told the mostly sold out crowd. To paraphrase: “I’m looking for people who want to donate five thousand dollars and get nothing.” So Rosie did what you never see in these situations: she worked the room until more than a dozen people pledged the 5K, then a dozen more for a thousand dollars, and then lots more at $100 apiece.

“Everyone has all this stuff, who needs more?” she asked rhetorically. But in this economy, it makes sense. Raising funds for her Maravel Performing Arts Center is no easy task. The time and manpower to find the donor items, etc, is too much trouble and not worth it. O’Donnell would rather devote the center’s time to working with the kids. The result pays off every time. After opening the night on the Palace stage with dancers from “West Side Story.” Rosie showed off her Broadway kids. As usual they were miraculous. It’s the quickest way to get wallets open.

But the night didn’t stop there. Rosie still secretly harbors hope for being the new Ed Sullivan. It didn’t work out a year ago when she did an ill-suited live variety show on NBC. But she should try it again, and soon. This version was smooth, fun, and unpretentious. Rosie served as emcee, and introduced a mix of icons (Queen Latifah) and newcomers. In the audience she pointed out Chita Rivera, Nora Ephron, and Natasha Lyonne. There was no forced merriment, just talent and some ribald jokes.

The talent included an “American Idol” singer I’d never heard of, but will not forget now: Melinda Doolittle. A native of Tulsa and St. Louis, Doolittle was in the Jordin Sparks season. Her first album is called “Coming Back to You” on the indie MPCA label. You can hear it all on I can’t say which of these 13 tracks is my favorite; they are all spectacular. Superlatives are just not enough. Melinda Doolittle, live last night, and on this CD, is a magnificent R&B singer. She swings from gritty blues to Stax soul to shiny crooning without missing a beat. She even throws in a little lite disco. There are echoes of Etta James, Ruth Brown, Gloria Gaynor, and Carla Thomas. Who can ask for more? Listen to her command of Sammy Cahn’s “Wonder Why.” Natalie Cole’s going to be very interested in that, I’m sure.

Doolittle is a real singer, too, not a yodeler. She hasn’t got any tricks. Doolittle is a throwback to great soul singing, a lost art (much like Vaneese Thomas, whom I’ve written about before). On the opening track, “Fundamental Things,” and on the Robert Johnson classic “Dust My Broom,” she simply cements a reputation that no one will ever be able to wisk away. I just hope there’s still an audience of smart music lovers out there for her. (P.S. John Titta, the music publisher who owns MPCA, chose these songs. It’s like the perfect selection. We have to ask him where he found “We Will Find A Way” by Susan Sheridan. Brilliant.)

The other performers were no slouches either: Montego Glover, from “Memphis,” was sultry and a star too; Norm Lewis, Nikki Blonsky, and Shoshana Bean were among the other accomplished Broadway soloists.

P.S. Charlie Rose, Oprah, NPR, CBS Sunday Morning, Regis: get Melinda Doolittle on your shows now! She’s got ‘it’.

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