15 December 2010

One Touch of Janice

Strike a pose: Dietrich

It’s taken me a little while to register my impressions of Janice Hall’s first cabaret act, Grand Illusions: The Music of Marlene Dietrich, about which I wrote a preview here. Indeed, I’ve waited until the first run of the show, at New York’s Metropolitan Room, ended, because I didn’t want my observations to be construed as a review in any conventional sense; I’ve waited until I saw the show a second time, in a theater, Urban Stages, because Janice gave me so much to absorb.

What Janice is doing turns out to be neither imitation nor incarnation, per se. She’s a better singer and actress than Dietrich, and for my money she’s better looking, too. She doesn’t sound or dress like Dietrich — she evokes the great star in other, far subtler ways, and on the surface, her act is more a survey course than a tribute. The key to Janice’s approach comes with the almost offhanded observation that Dietrich reinvented herself constantly throughout her career — and it is this that guarantees that Grand Illusions will stay with me for a long time to come.

The evocative Janice Hall

For Janice is reinventing herself, too. Yes, Dietrich’s songs play to some of her established strengths, notably her languages: Janice not only sings in German and French in the act, she also provided translations for some of the songs. For most cabaret artistes, that would be a stretch; for Janice, it’s a comfort zone. And yet all the while, with the help of stage director Peter Napolitano and music director Paul Trueblood, Janice is striking out in entirely new directions.

First among these is the voice, employing a sound that’s so far from the trained soprano she has deployed in her operatic career, as she demonstrates toward the end of the act. Her account of “Das Lied ist aus” becomes a sort of duet with herself, Cabaret Janice and Opera Janice, who pushes away the microphone and cuts loose. (Inevitably, I recalled “One More Kiss,” the duet from Sondheim’s Follies.)

Opera Janice shows you how to get ahead.
(As Strauss’ Salome)

Cabaret Janice is mellow, cool. She spins out the songs in a clear, vibrato-less alto; only her seamless range and her canny legato suggest that she’s ever been near an opera house. She’s already mastered tricks — jazzy rhythms, singing on consonants, masterful use of the microphone — that other sopranos never learn, or need to. Likewise, Janice possesses the wit (and diction) to put over comic numbers with ease, and I found myself thinking of other repertory she might essay in a cabaret setting.

When I’ve seen her in the opera house, she’s always created a sense of intimacy, an intense focus that made me feel I was watching her from very near by, though in reality she was playing on a relatively grand scale on the stage of Fort Worth’s Bass Hall. In cabaret, she’s dialed down, suiting her interpretation to the size of the room.

Her accustomary face

What she’s able to create with “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” accompanied only by plucked bass (Ritt Henn at the Metropolitan Room, Tom Hubbard at Urban Stages), is almost indescribable: she’s a still voice in the deepest recess of my mind. It’s my favorite number in the show, the one for which her operatic performances prepared me least.

The real Dietrich was a baritone who barked “Ich bin die fesche Lola,” rather than singing it, and perfect, or even reliable pitch was never one of her trademarks. Surely one reason “I’ve Grown Accustomed” appealed to her was that it was written to be sprechgesang, more spoken than sung. These aren’t the qualities to which Janice is paying tribute; if you think of Dietrich during the act, you are not thinking about her this way, or about the remarkable way she overcame her limitations.

Working Woman: Janice rehearses Angels in America in London

What you are thinking about instead is Dietrich as a woman, flesh and blood and not celestial icon; you reflect upon a working actress who, several times in her career, discovered that her old act urgently needed to change. Janice notes some of these turning points — such as the verdict in 1937 that Dietrich was “box office poison” — with a wry “Ooops.”

But Dietrich was nothing if not resilient, and she reinvented herself constantly. She went from face in the crowd to international sex goddess, from Germany to America, from screen to concert stage, from star to legend to recluse.

Another of Dietrich’s reinventions

Janice doesn’t emphasize — indeed, she doesn’t even mention — her own reinvention, yet Grand Illusions is a demonstration of that reinvention, a sort of test-drive of an entirely new vehicle for her. Thus she is allying herself not to the look or the sound but to the essence of Dietrich, paying tribute less to the music of the star than to the spirit of the woman.

That’s profoundly moving, both for Janice’s sake and for those of us in the audience who are contemplating reinventions now, too. In Janice’s reflections on Dietrich, I saw Janice — and myself.

I daresay others felt as I did. We can only hope that our reinventions are as graceful and as promising as Janice Hall’s.

The title for this essay alludes to Kurt Weill’s One Touch of Venus, which was conceived for Dietrich. Ultimately, she turned down the role: playing a love goddess, Dietrich felt, was inappropriate for her. (I’m not making this up, you know.) And so Dietrich never was a Broadway star. Was this a failure to reinvent herself, or a reinvention of another kind, beyond the scope of mortal minds?

In any case, if Janice wants to play Venus — or just sing a medley of the songs — I’m all in favor.

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