12 March 2012

Janice Hall at the Metropolitan Room

Portrait of a Cabaret Star.
Illustration by WVM©

As spring offers tantalizing signals of nearness, I rise some days prepared to sing “Oh! What a Beautiful Mornin’.” Luckily however — for anyone within earshot — I don’t have to sing it, because Janice Hall is doing it for me. It’s the opening number in her new cabaret act, “I’d Rather Be Doing This,” which I caught at its second performance at New York’s Metropolitan Room.

Janice gave us a preview in December at Urban Stages, a theater in midtown, but while Urban Stages’ proportions are certainly intimate, it’s not a cabaret: the new material felt right before, but it feels righter now in the sort of space it was designed to fill. An increasing sense of ease marks Janice’s each foray into this art form — which is not to say that she ever seemed uneasy.

But consider the ingredients of I’d Rather Be Doing This: a collection of some of Janice’s favorite theater songs and pop standards. In her previous show, Grand Illusions, Janice had a theme: the career of Marlene Dietrich, as charted in song.* In this new show, Janice herself is the Dietrich, if you will, the star around whom the show is built.

She brings to the cabaret stage a number of skills that have helped her transition so gracefully into this new repertoire. Among the most important, I realized while I listened to her on March 5, is rhythm — essential because cabaret is so closely linked to jazz. And baby, Janice has got rhythm, all right, delivering Nancy White’s tricky (and very funny) “Bet He Can Tango” and Porter’s “Too Darn Hot” with danceable flair. But she can slow down, too, and her mashup of Baghdad Café’s “Calling You” and Dimitri Tiomkin’s “Wild Is the Wind” proved astonishing, sung in one long outpouring of breath, her emotions seemingly torn in two opposing directions — that turned out to be one and the same.

Among Janice’s other great assets are her wit and the diction with which to express it. Intricate lyrics pose no obstacle, and with an assist from her director, Peter Napolitano, and music director, Matthew Martin Ward, she deploys impeccable comic timing — notably in Napolitano and Ward’s song, the title number, a paean to anything but making love.

Ward’s no slouch when it comes to comic timing, which he demonstrated with a hilariously deadpan running translation of the Italian pop classic, “Mala Femmena,” a furious curse on the eponymous “bad woman” who’s done the singer wrong. Here and in Piaf’s “L’Accordéoniste” (by Michel Emer), Janice made use of her linguistic abilities, though naturally they’re less central to this show than they were to the Dietrich act.

Another mashup really warmed my heart, the combination of Kurt Weill’s “My Ship” (from Lady in the Dark) and “Pirate Jenny” (from Threepenny Opera), connecting the yearning that’s in both songs with the festering, lethal resentment that marks most of “Jenny.” Every time Janice sings Weill, I go home fantasizing about the roles that she could play so beautifully, from Anna in Sieben Todsünden to Venus and beyond. With her ability to do justice to both aria and song, she’d be unbeatable in almost anything Weill ever wrote, actually.

It strikes me that, while Janice has played soprano leads in opera — the very definition of stardom — here on the cabaret stage she’s got no character but herself to portray, no personality but her own to charm us. It takes guts to do that, and I’m happy to say that Janice is succeeding magnificently.

The next performance of I’d Rather Be Doing This is April 18, at 9:30 PM at the Metropolitan Room. Be there.

Metropolitan Room
34 West 22nd St.
Between 5th and 6th Avenues
New York, NY 10010

*NOTE: As a special treat in the form of an encore on March 6, we got a quick overview of Grand Illusions, for which Janice has been nominated for an Outstanding Vocalist award from the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs. She couldn’t include all of my favorite moments, but every one she did perform was a honey. Please note, too, that Peter Napolitano has been nominated for a directing award from the same organization.

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