Photo: Lou Montesano

Encapsulating the promise and pain of her own life, Baby Jane Dexter is back. 

Midway through her new act, Body And Soul, running at the Metropolitan Room through December 16, the downtown cult favorite delivers a bluesy, rasping version of “I'm A Fool To Want You” (Wolf-Harron-Sinatra). She despondently sings about drowning in memories. It is one of those crucial moments in a darkened nightclub that tethers the emotional, fanciful and carefree world that defines her show against a background of fierce realities and a road less traveled. It is a road she is familiar with. The song is a metaphor for what might have been - personally and professionally. Dexter has faced enough medical and personal crisis' to fall a redwood. Ever the Phoenix, she has risen from the ashes with high spirits and grit. She celebrates that grit through songs that pierce the heart like “Reckless Blues” and “I Won't Cry Anymore” (Frisch-Wise). But she also takes a poke at a wilder life with soul-tinged ditties like “Arm and A Leg” and Randy Newman's“Guilty/”. She paces herself through an emotional workout on that stage regardless of days past.


Seated in a wheelchair with her cheat sheets (like Streisand, et al.), she remarks that instead of walking these days, she takes herself wheeling. She chides about this after tripping through Portia Nelson's silly “Hole In the Sidewalk”. It is her only reference to infirmity. If Dexter's delivery in her act feels particularly authentic, it is because she has lived those lyrics and fallen in more than one hole. And, as with all her shows, it's not perfect. Her voice is not perfect. It's not definitive cabaret. However, quite simply, it's all about truth - her truth. And, that's why she's called the real thing. Her candor makes it about as authentic as it gets. Where lesser artists might crumble, Dexter moves on fueled by her songs. All this is what makes her shows worthwhile and brings more meaning to her quixotic words. For instance, singing a stripped down, passion fueled “LA Breakdown,” Dexter embraces going back... it's tough for me just living... crippled by my failures and the ache along my spine, back to old forgotten places half remembered names and faces - in medley with a sultry “Body And Soul.” (Heyman-Sour-Green.) Such naked honesty fused with a fiercely raw mix of emotions touches a nerve that she seamlessly conveys in a blunt delivery. It is a spellbinding moment. It is also the life she has led and a masterclass in the honesty of a lyric. You see, Dexter has not had an easy road over the last few years due to health issues. Lesser heads might have broken down. Not this force of nature. Hers is an example of truth in song that is her calling card in one of her most powerful shows to date.

Once a footnote in Gotham's nightlife and part of a unique breed of performers that came out of the seventies, today, those footnotes are as important as the chapters. Baby Jane is the scrapbook and the clippings too. Right or wrong, warts and all, she shares it all, in this must-see show.

Not enough can be said about the contributions of Ross Patterson at the piano. His jazzy improvisations on his concerto-like arrangements are nothing less than brilliant. At times, it feels like there is an orchestra on stage. At other times, his diminuendo is so gentle, it whispers like a quiet breeze. I think that's called genius.

Baby Jane Dexter appears at the Metropolitan Room on Fridays, December 9 and 16. Reservations: 212 206 09440 or www.metropolitanroom.com

Full disclosure: I did not plan to write about Baby Jane. However, after seeing this new show, I was compelled to say what should be said - even using a site that is being rebuilt.

Metropolitan Room May 2014 

Clark Warren - tuxClark Warren: A Man Of Quality - And Spunk

Aristotle said: “Quality is not an act, it is a habit.”

That self-proclaimed “Lucky So & So,” Clark Warren's new show, Jazz & Standards With A Twist opened with considerable hoopla and a full house at the Metropolitan Room recently (and returns on May 30.) Mr. Warren is a class act. He is a man of quality – and spunk. This senior has a long way to go. And, he'll do it with a twist.

Recalling some familiar standards fused with genuine rarities, Mr. Warren embraces a genre and style we'll never see again. It was the age that offered the likes of boy singers running the gamut from Tex Beneke, Russ Columbo, Woody Herman, Jack Teagarten, Dick Hyman, Bobby Darin and their ilk to big bands that produced even bigger stars like Basie, Crosby, Ellington and Sinatra. All this preceded a few of today's contemporary vocalists who favor standards like Buble' and Connick, Jr. The show was all under the truly brilliant jazz-hot guidance of musicians Dan Furman on piano, Jon Burr on bass and David Silliman on drums. Their dynamic jazz riffs caused several spontaneous outbursts of applause throughout the show.

Now, the handsome, white haired Mr. Clark is of a certain age and in spite of a classic debonair appearance and suave manner, has a terrific youthful sense of humor and thoroughly entertained the crowd throughout the set filled with musical surprises. At a time when so many cabaret shows are organized around strict thematic concepts, it takes a certain spunk to buck the trend and reflect on a lifetime of singing tunes from his past and finding hidden, lost or some new treasures to present. That spunk may be his greatest gift. By its very nature, cabaret is a mixed bag with deep roots in classic standards that came from the golden age of song – and before. Clark carries this mix off with aplomb in a style that's largely missing in the nightclubs today. The results were one heckuva quality (the key word here) show. But, because he lacks the seemingly requisite youth that seems to grab the eyes of many critics, he will surely be overlooked when awards are passed out by the self-anointed experts or assorted screening committees and such. The truth is in terms of “quality cabaret,” Clark Warren's latest show has all the ingredients that go into the finest, award winning shows in cabaret. And, it's not about the voice. He has a supple, lived-in baritone. In fact, if truth be told, while lacking the obvious cache', his vocals are better than Bobby Short's in his latter years (though, in fairness, Mr. Short suffered medical problems that faltered his singing at times.) However, in spite of an occasional vocal glitch, Warren projected an off-kilter musical blend of knowledgeable sophistication, fine phrasing and class that was smooth; one that newcomers could learn from. Early on, he notes that “ … everybody has a different version of what cabaret is … it's real … a heightened form of communication.” This leads into his very jazzy rendition of James Taylor's Mean Old Man, a decidedly odd surprise from one who specializes in songs from the distant past (Mean Old Man is from Taylor's 2002 album October Road.) It proves to be a fun choice and a crowd pleaser. He then segues into the finger snapping Centerpiece by two greats from the last century: Harry (“Sweets”) Edison and Jon Hendricks (who is now 92 years old.) The contrast in the two songs is fascinating. A little explanation of this vast diversity might be welcome as both songs are not well known and decades apart.

Other highlights from the eclectic set include an effective, hot reading of Summertime (Gershwin-DuBose) that featured red hot solos from all members of the trio played against Warren's very cool, laid back delivery on this. This is the evening's highlight. What Are You Afraid Of ? (Segal-Wells) is a seldom heard rarity with warm vocals. Bassist Jon Burr's original Sea Breeze was given a mellow bossa beat that was was infectious. Closing with John Pizzarelli's I Like To Recognize The Tune proves to be quite the winner and turned into a rousing hand clapper.

This show is filled with hidden gems that make it all worthwhile. Let's hope Warren has more cabaret exposure. At times he is quite serious about his work. Other times, he can be an ebullient jazz cut up who doesn't blame it on his youth. He owns who he is and enjoys it – a lucky so and so.

Clark Warren returns to the Metropolitan Room on May 30 at 7:00.

J.DCerna 2

Not As Cute As Picture

 Duplex Cabaret Theatre

 

 

Full disclosure: This show was extended several times to sold out houses at The Duplex Cabaret Theatre several months ago.It returns later this year. Few shows are as entertaining, insightful or profound based on the powerful writings and epic performance of J.D. Cerna. With apologies for the long delay, here is what this observer thought. 

 

Sometimes, it takes a village. Sometimes, it takes a wounded genius. Enter J.D.Cerna.
Making noise with a recent series of one-man shows at The Duplex is J.D. Cerna appearing in Not As Cute As Picture. In doing so, the multi-talented actor rode an emotional roller coaster non pareill. In his quest to tell the story of one year in his life and find his piece of sky, the GLAAD-Media Award nominee, was so successful, all extended shows sold out quickly. It was a bravura turn worthy of much more attention. It's that good. He's that good. It was also an epiphany channeled through one who lived this frenzied journey filled with misfits all disguised as real life. Fusing this mess into a cohesive play is impressive and exposes Cerna as a force to be reckoned with. He is a truth teller. More of this is needed amid the vanity shows that clutter cabaret stages.

Drawing from a grab bag of characters who crossed his path that year, Cerna portrayed milestones in his wild life during this eye-opening period. He had a lot to say. Instead of genuflecting about past regrets or throwing a pity party, he wrote a solid show that defiantly relived the absurdities of his life as he worked at “survival jobs.” Cerna focused on some ner'er do well and bizarre characters. Along the way, he unearthed the neurotic histrionics that engulfed him as he tried to make waves – especially on the high seas. In doing so, he emerged a survivor. His struggles reveal a bevy of images as he clawed through it all with the cunning of a lion stalking its prey. To his credit, he ingeniously turned it all into a laugh riot! At times, his powerhouse acting showed moments of genius. His in-depth honesty recalled John Leguizamo - and Lily Tomlin – also searing truth tellers who use humor. Cerna portrayed his pain through laughter. Few artists would bear such brutal honesty on an intimate stage. The fact is that truth is his imperative. Acting is his conduit. His writing reveals a seamless commitment to the acceptance that leads to freedom. At times, the always kinetic Cerna displayed exceptional energy as he segued from one outrageous character to another. At rare times, he revealed a vulnerability that was trenchant. More of this might be welcome in such a fast-moving play with so many highly charged characters. Ultimately, it makes for compelling theatre by one who is in touch with himself and his past.

 This complex tale all unfolds through spitfire vignettes revolving around events during Cerna's 29th year. Frustrated after many auditions and rejections, he accepts a cruise ship jaunt that has him working with other frustrated actors. Replete with timely house music, the piece opens frenetically and rarely slows down with Cerna portraying these biting vagabonds – of which he was one. There is also a crucial underpinning chronicling the AIDS crisis of the day. This is mainly done through letters and long distance phone conversations with a former lover/best friend who is ailing. Initially, he is in denial about what is happening to his friend. These flighty chats play a pivotal role in understanding the grit that caused an epiphany and what Cerna is made of. Initially frivolous, the calls evolve into something frighteningly sobering. They are a reminder of the shallowness of the people inhabiting his own shallow life. Among those malignant characters is a Latin drama queen acting out his bitchy persona working with Cerna as a waiter. An annoying buffoon, he is also quite real. This character embodies the hollow world Cerna is embedded in. Along the way, on the cruise gig, he inadvertently spots his photo on the desk of the entertainment director. On the back is coldly scribbled, “not as cute as picture...” This smack in the face marks the beginning of a turning point on which the play is rooted. Too, he encounters an older, wealthy gay man. Here, once again, Cerna's honesty is brutal – with no apologies.

 The effectiveness of the aforementioned relies on the strength Cerna brings to his powerful and poignant performance. Such honesty is not always pretty. But it is that honesty that is the centerpiece of his exceptional writing. Sex plays a dominant role throughout. More honesty. The work unfolded as a portrait of a part of gay life that all audiences can relate to. We all make mistakes. We all have known people with egg on their face. Cerna's finest moments unfold as he paints portraits of these misbegotten characters with such brutal integrity. He takes no prisoners. He opens wounds and exposes mixed feelings with ease. Such feelings range from lofty egoism, intense insecurity to lower points where he opens a floodgate of emotions allowing the audience to look beyond his most personal thoughts through a salty mix of lost souls sprinkled in the New York bar scene of the 90s, the cruise ship, a Florida fling, a gig in Hollywood and his foray into hustling.

Bad breaks. Bad decisions. Heartbreak. It's all there. Told with an explosive humor – and honesty that is as raw as high voltage nerve gas. J.D.Cerna does a masterful job of acting and writing an epic piece that deserves to be seen by a wider audience. Do not miss this play that became a cult classic from day one.

(The show is returns in the fall at a venue to be announced.)

Ruth Carlin 3In her recent, engaging shows at The Duplex to celebrate her new CD, Moon Song, Ruth Carlin proved herself with a lot of class in a personalized set of well-chosen songs. Often exhibiting a warm vibrato and succinct phrasing. Ms. Carlin offered a show filled with good song selections that perfectly suited her understated interpretive style to a tee.

 Deftly directed by Scott Barnes with Paul Greenwood as musical director, the low-key hour worked on many levels. This was mainly due to the fact that she is comfortable, relaxed and knows who she is which includes her vocal strengths. She also never tried to emulate some other persona as is sometimes common among cabaret performers. At her best on ditties like the 1970 My Most Important Moments  (Cryer-Ford) from The Last Sweet Days of Isaac, about images and nostalgia and the bucolic In A Restaurant By the Sea by John Bucchino, lit up the small stage like a flickering candle that was endearingly sweet creating one of the hours most memorable moments. Her easy-going, conversational demeanor coupled with a soft, expressive alto permeated the memorable hour in banter and song that never dragged. Too, offering some of her original poetry added a human touch that was carefully constructed so as not to be overindulgent. And, that poetry had real meaning as it seamlessly blended into the show.

 There were other special highlights during the hour that included: Why Can't I Forget? (Harris) that was poignant. David Friedman's What Was I Dreamin' Of? carried her insightful, reflective theme even further. Gary White's folksy Long, Long Time came from a yearning, wistful place within that was heartfelt without being overtly melancholic. This was perfect for her well-controlled vibrato which she used sparingly. Frequently, Ms. Carlin sang such wholesome ballads but wisely stopped short of becoming maudlin. It was rather like a pleasant trip down memory lane from one looking back on homespun tidbits taken from a life that has real meaning. This was even more evident with a serene reading of Julie Gold's The Journey that effortlessly wrapped up this special show by a lady one wants to see more of. It was preceded by a reading of Ms. Carlin's gentle poem, My Damage Will Save Me adding a nice touch.

 While those tender ballads hit the mark, with the exception of the mainstay, You Fascinate Me So (Leigh-Coleman,) which was overly sad, she might play more with comic timing on the lighthearted numbers a bit more. Fluffy ditties like a campy parody of Memory (Lloyd Webber) from Cats, which had her joking about forgetting common things, called for more playful abandon and just plain silliness. And, the funny I Regret Everything might work even better with a more wacky spin. She did do a terrific job on Murray Grand's absurdity, I Always Say Hello To A Flower. More of this frivolous irony is called for. But minor quibbles take nothing away from a delightful show and would only complement the serious moments. That aside, Ruth Carlin is off and running in the right direction. And, she's a welcome addition to the current cabaret scene. Intelligence and warmth are vital factors in the success of any show in an intimate room. Ms. Carlin has both – in spades.

 Musical director Paul Greenwood's carefully crafted, subtle arrangements supported Carlin's every musical nuance to perfection. And, it was so nice that she paid tribute to the late singer Marianne Challis with whom she studied vocal technique by including her in her thank yous. Like her show, the lady has class. An official CD release for her new album is planned for the spring.

Bloody Bloody Lennie  Watts

Lennie Watts takes no emotional prisoners in his new show, Bloody Bloody Lennie Watts running at the Metropolitan Room with two more shows left on Sunday, June 17 and Wednesday, June 27. It is suggested that you reserve early. In this case, that is not just a promo come on.

Most dictionaries describe the word vortex as a state of affairs likened to a whirlpool for violent activity or irresistible force. Others imply it has something drawing into its powerful current, etc. In this show, there is a vortex of emotional roller-coasters riding currents that go up and down; all allowing for some of Watts's best cabaret work to date. The title is open for interpretation. I don't want to ruin it by saying more. But, it is his strongest show. It's funnier and more poignant than the others. With a few nips and tucks, this could play larger venues like off- Broadway and find an audience waiting for something extraordinary – and real.

Speaking of real, like Baby Jane Dexter and other truth-tellers in cabaret, Watts dares to go that extra step and open his soul amid some riotous anecdotes that had the room holding their sides with laughter. It's his most personal show that touches on variations of addictions, demons and loss; territories he has not delved into very deep in previous outings. With brilliant musical director/arranger Stephen Ray Watkins at the piano leading the powerhouse band with three backup singers (including Lorinda Lisitzka on harmonica,) this is a very big, at times loud, show with something for everyone.

Opening with the Kenny Loggins powerful It's About Time, incorporating gospel-esque and folk/pop rhythms into the mix, the audience was cheering loud as some strong statements unfolded like, … I may be drowning but I ain't dead yet! This frantic musical workout between band, backups and singer set the stage for what lies ahead. And, it was solid and grew in intensity balanced by the funny stuff which he has such a flair for. One wondered where it could all go after such a send-off. Exercising a lot of self-control, Watts continued the upbeat pace with the Janet Jackson hit, Control (Harris lll -Lewis-Jackson) and the ceiling rocked as he declared in song that this time it would be “my way.” An early centerpiece began with a moving delivery of Stephen Schwartz's Snapshots (from his Reluctant Pilgrim album (and also the name of his newest theatrical memoir.) This seemed to open a door to the crux of Watt's show; snapshots of his personal life and times with this ditty about the rites of passage. It all began a series of reinventions in the direction that began with a bang and sprinkled with a few softer, more personalized series of musical vignettes would pop up between the intelligent joking around and tongue-in-cheek moments such as Schradenfruede from Avenue Q about laughing at people's foibles. Comparing the sublime to the ridiculous in today's world of Facebook and social media was an unparalleled laugh riot with an undertone of failing at the bottom being as rough as failing at the top. Clever stuff.

A rarely heard, profound ballad, Standing Knee Deep In A River (McDill-Jones-Lee,) about … we go knee deep in the river …. and we're dying of thirst … created a special moment that was a serious highlight as was Lionel Richie's perennial love song, Still. Changing the tone again, Watts lead into more serious, topical banter about various addictions that was both meaningful and sincere. This came from a personalized place that hit home. It also led into the evening's blockbuster cacophony of noise that had the tech engineer turn everything up full blast – on My Favorite Things (of all things.) While this discordance of sound may have been hard on the eardrums, the unfolding message embodied an out of control addict who doesn't hear anything but himself - was ingenious. This slot, worth expanding, is exactly what could get this show into a larger venue. It was a huge risk that in lesser hands could have failed. Not here.

There's a lot more that goes into making this show the success it is. This observer has told more than planned already. For now, this will be a show that will be talked about long after the lights come down. It might also be a showcase that can find that other life – outside the confines of a night club. Few shows in recent years have had moments of such brilliance. Wait till you see what I've held back! Go!

The outstanding band consisted of Matt Wigton on bass guitar, Tim Lykins on drums, Peter Calo doing a superb job on guitar licks and flawless backup singers Tanya Holt, Wendy Russell and, as previously mentioned, a special nod to Lorinda Lisitzka for her solo turns on harmonica (who knew?)

 

Marrissa Mulder picFollowing a cabaret debut at Don't Tell Mama in 2010, Marissa Mulder went on to win first place in the MetroStar Talent Contest at the Metropolitan Room last year. As part of her prizes, she recently received a four week run at the club which has been recorded by Miranda Music and will be a CD release. This gig was part of her reward. And, reward it was for anyone in attendance at her show, Illusions. Few new singers on the current scene have garnered as much well-deserved praise and strong word of mouth as Ms. Mulder has. Last year's debut show, a tribute to Jimmy Van Heusen, was well received.

In this show, directed by Karen Oberlin, Ms. Mulder connected immediately with the room through her natural charisma and inviting presence that was endearing and professional on every level. Opening with a sweetly sung Pure Imagination (Bricusse-Newley) in medley with Never, Never Land (Styne-Comden/Green,) she set the tone of a young lady not quite ready to let go of her childhood and its dreams. This subtle underpinning became the throughline of her show. She even quoted Woody Allen early on, “... what if everything is an illusion?” Thus began her journey in personalized words and music. Delivered with natural poise and confidence, her patter flowed easily and was always just enough. Neophytes often ramble a bit more than necessary. Not Ms. Mulder. And, speaking of confidence, it also takes mettle for a performer to step aside and allow her musicians to show their stuff. This happened several times with great effect throughout the show and was made even better thanks to the quality of the trio with Bill Zeffiro on piano, Pete Anderson on clarinet/sax/flute and John Loehrke on bass. Really top-notch musicians who know their stuff. More importantly, their professionalism and skill enhanced Mulder's beautiful vocals repeatedly. This was particularly in evidence on a silky reading of Cole Porter's Day In, Day Out with a fine clarinet solo and Old Black Magic that gave great bassist Loehrke another chance to shine.

Skillfully directed with subtlety and elan by Karen Oberlin, other highlights included a fun turn with My Kind of Guy, a terrific original dittty by Bill Zeffiro. Some gentle, well-honed scatting worked well on It's Only a Paper Moon (Arlen-Harburg) and Kander and Ebbs' The Money Tree from The Act which showed off a well-controlled belt voice. A sincere Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell, showed diversity, intelligence and sincerity that was compelling as was this special show by one quite new to the arena and showing the promise of big things to come. No “illusions” here, Maria Mulder is the real thing – with miles to go before she's through. 

Tanya HoltIn her recent shows at Metropolitan Room, Tanya Holt proved she is more than a cut above most of the acts she books in her capacity as booking manager of the club. This lady has so much going for her. Watching her show, was like a throwback to another era where the girl singer fronted the band and calmly tore the roof off the place. She made them laugh. She made them cry. Few artists have such a gift. With so much going for her, one can't help ask - why isn't she better known? She has goods to spare and aside from some serious moments that shattered, she is very relaxed and quite the funny lady.

Deftly directed by Lennie Watts, who never let the direction get in the way, the set was filled with carefully thought-out songs and riotous patter that poked fun at the hiccups in her life and embraced the good stuff in a compelling style. Holt's show was a lesson in selecting material that suits the performer, follows a thread and remains true to who she is.

At times, she recalled a mellow Rebecca Parris in a cool jazz mode or a reflective Jill Scott. Comparisons aside,  Tanya Holt is her own person and, above all, a truth-teller whose not afraid to take chances.  For instance, taking on the late Whitney Houston's monster hit, I Have Nothing (Thompson-Foster) was about as risky a chance as a female vocalist today can get – especially on an intimate stage. Holt fluently took this from a very personal place somewhere deep inside and turned it from something maudlin to an anthem of inspiration where the listener just knows she makes it. This applied to the brunt of her show. On I Can Cook Too from On The Town (Bernstein-Comden/Green,) she practically got a standing ovation from the explosive, laughter-filled room mobbed with friends and colleagues who knew of her recent ordeal when her house burned which she turned into an hysterical accounting. This was appropriately followed by an uplifting Gotta Move (Peter Matz.) Tackling the melancholic This Bitter Earth by Clyde Otis, made famous by the late Dinah Washington, she created a sobering moment with a subdued reading that was well paced. She was also very effective on the familiar Home from The Wiz (Smalls.)

Holt's singing is capable of refined phrasing and some surprise high belting which she uses sparingly but with great effect. In the final analysis, hers was a show wrapped around a theme of reflection and fun times or, more to the point, falling down in life and getting right back up. Tanya Holt needs more exposure. Like others, past and present, this gal singer deserves to be seen and heard. Closing with Dinah Washington's Let's Get Busy capped a solid evening from a pro who needs to do just that - and go to that next level.

Tracy Stark excelled as musical director/arranger. Matt Wigton offered perfect support on bass.