BABY JANE DEXTER "IF.." Ross Patterson, music director; Boots Maleson bass. Elissa Patterson, director.
At one point during her new show "If...," Baby Jane Dexter announces that she and her music director Ross Patterson have been working together for sixteen years. That would take us back to 1992 when she was doing shows at Erv Raible's long-lost and lamented Eighty Eights on Tenth Street in Greenwich Village. Before that, she had been appearing at Reno Sweeney and at Greg Dawson's The Ballroom in Soho.
My personal history with her goes back earlier than that-- to about 1968, because she was one of the replacements during the Broadway run of Hair. Over the years, each new show Baby Jane has introduced has been better than the previous one and her growth as an artist has been remarkable. When she began her cabaret career,...(more)
there used to be long spoken sections in her acts, usually downers about such unpleasant subjects as date rape, feminist angst, and frustration in romance and career. Musically, the selections of her programs have always been eclectic, ranging from full blown rock and roll to unusual takes on standards. During that time, she was in the rock and blues category and she rarely sang from The Great American Songbook. I wasn't always enthusiastic about her early acts, but she was one of a kind, full of energy and gusto and anger, and always a true force of nature. Sometime during the last shows at Eighty Eights there was a sudden transformation, unexpected but wonderful. There was much less talk, much more music, and I can still see her singing "Easy Living" and giving an emotional force to the familiar standard that was unequaled by anyone who had ever sung that song before --- and that includes Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Ella Fitzgerald, Morgana King, and Billie Holiday.
Baby Jane's show at The Metropolitan Room last year was her best show ever. She recorded that show as her recent CD, You're Following Me!: Baby Jane Dexter Live at the Metropolitan Room, which won the Stu Hamstra Cabaret Hotline Best Live Recording Award for 2008. It gives us the superb magnitude of her artistry today. The new show, If.., with Ross Patterson as pianist/music director and Boots Maleson on bass and directed by Elissa Patterson, surpasses that last show!
Baby Jane is a great actress, and for this show (instead of the long ponchos and baggy slacks) she is gowned like a supper club icon in a black silver beaded coat and sparkling jewelry which include chandelier type earrings and some long necklaces. She takes command of the stage from the first number, "Moving Forward" (by Doug Robb and Dan Estrin of the group Hoobastank) which blends right into Lucinda Williams' "Side of the Road". This is a show about possibilities, survival, what could have been, and what might be. She immediately goes into the Harry Nilsson song, "Remember" and "What If" by Bonnie Bramlett & Gary Cotton.
The account that follows seems spontaneous and off the cuff, but it is well chosen and deliberately delivered that way. As Judy Garland did in her acts, Baby Jane can tell us stories that sound improvised because she is such a subtle actress. She talks about her folk singing youth on Long Island, coming into New York City to hang out with the disco crowd, and bounces into a lyric version of "The 'In' Crowd", the Ramsey Lewis hit written by Billy Page. She talks about what kind of luck she would like to have had, in love and finance, tells us about buying a lottery ticket when the top prize was $42 million, what she did with the ticket, and now wondering "If I Had a Million", from The Me Nobody Knows by Will Holt and Gary William Friedman. Kander & Ebb's "I Don't Remember You" becomes in Baby Jane's version not an ironic torch song, as most women sing it, but a strong angry personal statement. It is followed by a wonderful merging of two Rodgers & Hammerstein pieces, "An Ordinary Couple" from The Sound of Music melded right into one of the fiercest and saddest versions of "This Nearly Was Mine" from South Pacific you will ever hear sung by anyone.
After that tour de force, Baby Jane talks how her mother, a singer, would go into New York City to go to open auditions for Broadway shows. Determined to be in a Broadway show, she tells of showing up at an open call and being in a line of ingenues with short skirts and short hair. Baby Jane stands in that line, the only one with long stringy hair and hippie gear and is rejected. Her folk-singing friends suggest she go to an open call for the tribal rock musical, Hair. She auditions thirteen times and is finally cast, but not until she relates an amusing story of a trip to Spain and being advised by a lady bullfighter to go to a special dentist and get all her teeth recapped without Novocain! These amusing stories are framed by joyful choruses of "Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee (An Actor's Life for Me)" from the Walt Disney animated film Pinocchio (Leigh Harline/Ned Washington).
Baby Jane also reinterprets some well-known songs with defiant versions of "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do," "(Always) Something There To Remind Me," and a powerful "If I Ruled the World" (Cyril Ornadel/ Leslie Bricusse). Her penultimate coup is a heart- wrenching performance of "Why Did I Chose You?" (Michael Leonard/ Herbert Martin, from The Yearling), alternating her soft tones and her strong tones to illuminate the meaning of each line of the lyrics of the song. It's followed by a rocking version of "They Can't Take That Away from Me" with strong work on the breaks by Maleson and Patterson.
For her encore, Baby Jane repeated a song she sang at the close of the recent Mabel Mercer Foundation Cabaret Convention. Reaching out to the audience, she becomes a revival gospel singer with her interpretation of REM's "Everybody Hurts" with its recurrent plea of "Hang on" again and again, imploring us, pleading to us, demanding that we all will survive, for a smashing finish.
There are lots of definitions of the word "diva" --- most often applied to prima donna opera stars or camp female cabaret artists who appeal to a gay crowd. The word actually is derived from the female Greek word for Deity, meaning divine or goddess. Baby Jane Dexter is an example of the true meaning of the word, an artist who is without peer in her field, one of the great artists we will see in this lifetime. All singers, male or female, will learn from this performance what artistic truth is all about. This show is a must-see for everyone! ----
Baby Jane Dexter If.... concludes at the Metropolitan Room on West 22 Street on Friday, November 28 and Saturday, November 29.
See their website www.metropolitanroom.com for details or call 212-206-0440 for reservations.
CDs are for sale at the club those nights, online at www.CDbaby.com and elsewhere; the singer's website is www.babyjanedexter.com