Baby Jane Dexter
“The Real World”
Metropolitan Room – November 26 – December 18, Fridays and Saturdays
The first time I saw Baby Jane Dexter perform was in 1977 at the original Ballroom on West Broadway in SoHo. I immediately became a fan. Singers can typically be slotted into general categories, but I have yet to come across another singer I would compare her to—and not even one whom I would feel comfortable comparing her with. When she performs, there is not just a singer on the stage, there is a woman, a history, and a view of life, and the artist/person that is Baby Jane Dexter creates an almost palpable bond with her audience. She doesn’t just artfully interpret songs—though she does, indeed, do that—she uses them to make fundamental statements about the human experience.
Singing in a deep, forceful voice that commands our attention, Dexter has always been a compelling presence. Over the past few years, however, she has undergone a metamorphosis: fierceness and fury have evolved into philosophical acceptance. She seems not just more cheerful, but genuinely happier. The change has in no way diminished her power or the impact she has on an audience, nor has it made pain and anger out-of-bounds as subjects; rather, it casts a mantle of benevolence over her shows.
Her new offering at the Metropolitan Room continues this trend, and it does so from the very beginning with the song that gives the show its title, “In The Real World” (Will Jennings, Richard Kerr), which contrasts the endless bliss that dreams can offer with the facts of reality. Dexter’s interpretation grows and becomes impassioned, communicating thereby the recognition that it’s not necessarily easy to accept reality. Other expressions of acceptance include Larry Addison’s “You’ve Got to Hurt Before You Heal” and Benard Ighner’s “Everything Must Change.” This last song is the only selection in the evening that needs a stronger point of view—at least it did the evening I attended.
She is fully convincing (and delightful) with songs of joy and happiness, among them the bouncy “She’s Too Good for Me” (Sting), the jitterbuggy “Baby, You’ve Got What It Takes” (Clyde Otis, Murray Stein), and “Getting Some Fun Out of Life” (Edgar Leslie, Joe Burke). Though far less ebullient, and tinged with rue, “Some People’s Lives” (Janis Ian, Rhonda Fleming) is an affecting statement of personal contentment and of regret for people who haven’t found the happiness that life can bring; Dexter gives a tender and sensitive reading of the song.
As I indicated, pain and anger are still in her repertoire. With a pairing of “Hurt” (Al Jacobs, Jamie Crane) and Alec Wilder’s “I’ll Be Around” she delivers a beautifully understated, but nonetheless heartbreaking, expression of pain, and in Marsha Malamet’s “Why Did you Promise Me the World?” her pain grows to anger. “I Won’t Cry Anymore” (Fred Wise, Al Frisch) and Diane Warren’s “I Learned from the Best” are given very strong performances: in the former song her resolve to forget the man who left her grows to a crescendo, and in the latter, she immerses herself in righteous anger and retribution. You may have noticed from my comments that in several of her interpretations, the emotional state she expresses develops and changes over the course of the song. That is one of the characteristics of her approach: a thoughtful and emotionally rich exploration of her material.
The final portion of the show, structured as a coda, could serve as a microcosm of how Dexter has evolved. “A Love So Beautiful” (Roy Orbison, Jeff Lynne) is a terribly triste song about a love that was allowed to slip away. This is followed by John Sebastian’s “I Had a Dream,” which takes us back to the opening song’s contrast between dreams and reality; though optimistic on the surface, its message is somewhat ambiguous, leaving open the question of whether happiness is possible in real life. Then with her encore selection (on the evening I saw the show), R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts,” she delivers the affirmative, encouraging resolution: “Hold on!”
There has been another, less fundamental change in Dexter: her patter has become briefer and more structured; it’s very funny. And the night I attended, her voice was in the best form I’ve heard it in years—capable, even, of remarkably sustained high notes. (Mind you, with an artist as expressive as Baby Jane Dexter, I consider the quality of the voice quite a secondary matter.) Happily, one important element has not changed: she is still working with her invaluable musical director-arranger-pianist Ross Patterson.
About the Author
Roy Sander has been covering cabaret and theatre for over thirty years. He’s written cabaret and theatre reviews, features, and commentary for seven print publications, most notably Back Stage, and for CitySearch on the Internet. He covered cabaret monthly on “New York Theatre Review” on PBS TV, and cabaret and theatre weekly on WLIM-FM radio. He was twice a guest instructor at the London School of Musical Theatre. A critic for BistroAwards.com, he is also the site’s Reviews Editor; in addition, he is Chairman of the Advisory Board of MAC.