Amber Gray’s “Gray Matter”

July 9, 2023

Anyone who has seen Hadestown or Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 is most likely already familiar with singer/ actress Amber Gray. But even for the most devoted of fans, the experience of Amber Gray in a cabaret is on a whole other level from what they have previously seen and heard. Gray Matter is a stripped down basic cabaret with just some traditional percussive instruments, a music director (equally supportive and memorable on piano, guitar, and accordion), and Gray herself.  Gray Matter is also brilliant.

Amber Gray (Photo: Courtesy 54 Below.)

There are a few interwoven themes presented like chapters in a book that enhance each other and present her in an astonishingly intimate and personal light.  I have rarely felt that I knew a performer as well at the end of a show as I did at 54 Below as the house lights came up.  In plain black jeans and a simple black top, Gray offers no pretense as she completely inhabits each song she presents. Her on-stage partner, Cody Owen Stine, provides empathetic, perfectly measured and subtle support throughout, never calling attention to his brilliance but keeping it in service to the singer and the song.

Passion, wit, creativity, and talent blend seamlessly as her patter and storytelling lead into and extend out of the beautiful and wide-ranging songs she has chosen; in turn, the songs become a riveting continuation of her spoken word passages.  It is a conversation with the audience brimming with thought and emotion and personal revelation quite unlike any other cabaret show. 

Throughout the set, Gray features songs from theatre projects with which she has been involved, resulting in an introduction to some of the most creative and exciting new artists currently enriching (and poised to transform) the theatrical scene in New York. It’s an education in the best sense of the word. These new songs co-exist with some inspired and emotionally resonant reworkings of more traditional musical fare.  

The highlights include Fiona Apple’s “Paper Bag,” invested with a spine and soul that makes her declaration, “I thought it was a bird, but it was just a paper bag,” resonate as never before.  Bernice Johnson Reagon’s “Are My Hands Clean” becomes an incendiary chant creating a modern-day echo of “Molasses & Rum” from 1776.  The Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” (Grace Slick) is transformed from a ’60s celebration to a 21st century contemplation of dependency and addiction. Gray’s uniquely powerful voice cuts through the complacency and empty histrionics with which too many others treat Jacques Brel as she touches on war and violence and loss in “Marieke,” and then allows a smoldering desperation flame into total desolation in “If You Go Away.” 

André de Shields, her famed co-star in Hadestown, provided “Tragic Mulatto,” a stunning moment of self-reflection dissecting the wounding legacy of “social standing.” The song was clothed in a classic, jazz standard sound with pointed lyrics like, “Living between the lines, it’s always twilight time.”  Thanks to the nuanced vocals and the exquisite accompaniment by Stine it is a total success on both fronts. Melody Gardot’s “If the Stars Were Mine” could have been written for Gray to sing; I can’t imagine anyone making it live like she does. She sings “Great Outdoors” (Ali Daneen, Sundar Ganglani) for her sons and the love she so visibly feels for them fills the room.  As her show began with an invocation, she closes it with a prayerful admonition for everyone in the room, “Give Love” written by the great British singer/songwriter Labi Siffre. 

Gray Matter is a rich and rewarding solo debut and an extraordinary introduction to an extraordinary cabaret performer who proves in every minute on the stage that there is not much better than simplicity and honesty combined with true talent. The unique timbre of her voice and her distinct yet conversational phrasing combine to reveal a totally individual performer whose story leaves her audience in rapt attention. I honestly can’t wait to see what Amber Gray comes up with next. If I might be allowed to slightly rephrase her inspired title, “Gray matters!”  


Presented at 54 Below, 254 W. 54th St., NYC, on June 28, 29, 30, & July 1, 2023.


About the Author

Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”