Baby Jane Dexter
“The Rules of the Road”
Metropolitan Room – November 16 – December 22, Fridays and Saturdays
After a year with more than its share of challenges, ultimate survivor Baby Jane Dexter takes the stage at the Metropolitan Room to begin her second long-running cabaret outing of the year and turns to the crowd with a smile that is simply radiant. Without fanfare, she eases into “Settle for Love” (Joe Ely). Unlike Ely’s raucous declaration, Dexter seems to have settled into a comfortable feeling about herself, presenting the song as a slow, steady recitation of facts, as though to say “This is me, no bullshit. Take it or leave it.” As if to punctuate that sentiment, between verses she even managed to shout “no texting” to a rude guest at a front table. When, after the song had ended, she asked him why he was texting, he sheepishly said, “It was important,” to which she replied, “Well, you could leave.” Amen! This dame is back, bolder and better than ever.
For this show, Dexter doesn’t mention her troubles at all, letting her artistry deliver the message. It’s a relatively patter-free evening for the gal who likes to tell stories. Of course, she can put that storytelling skill to great use in her songs. A standout early in the show is “The Art Teacher” (Rufus Wainwright), about a young girl’s crush on her teacher. She reinvents Neil Diamond’s “I’m a Believer” as a ballad, turning the first verse into an aching plea before it segues into “I’m Glad There Is You” (Paul Madeira, Jimmy Dorsey). By now, a handful of songs into the show, the audience is spellbound.
At the middle of the show, we see and hear vintage Baby Jane Dexter at her bluesy best, when she reprises “I Got Thunder” (Abbey Lincoln), a hit from her debut album of the same name. Speaking of New York’s recent trials with Hurricane Sandy in the midst of a presidential election, she says, “Some candidates had a few things to say about women’s rights. I have an opinion about that, too.” She then shoves “15 Ugly Minutes” (Dexter, Drey Shepperd) at us, a still-arresting autobiographical song about her harrowing ordeal with rape. As if that were not enough, she follows it with “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” (James Brown, Betty Jean Newsome), with a barely controlled rage that has been on simmer for far too long. It’s a powerful, unforgettable moment, showing that art, when done well, trumps political yammering every time.
She lightens up the mood a bit with an a cappella rendering of another Dexter-Shepperd song, “Chickie, Chickie, Chickie,” and then the wholly appropriate “I Put a Spell On You” (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins), leaving no doubt about it. She finally takes a seat to sing “Something to Live For” (Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington). One would have to be petrified rock not to weep at her longing.
As expected, Dexter closes big, combining “Never Too Old” (Bernie Taupin, Elton John) with “Forever Young” (Bob Dylan). By the time she reaches the latter, she puts down her mic, picks up her cane, and belts it out as she walks through the crowd, slowly making her way to the exit. The fact that Dexter, after her early career, tragedies, triumphs, and resurgences, can still sing such a song with so much conviction tells you everything you need to know about her character.
Throughout the show, Dexter’s voice remains in astonishing shape, her contralto willfully moving from growling lows to surprisingly effective soprano notes. On opening night she forgot lyrics a couple of times, and even once lost the key coming back in after a splendid piano solo. But never did she lose command of the stage or her sense of humor. There are more important things in life and she knows it, she lives it.
Enough cannot be said about her longtime musical director-accompanist, Ross Patterson. Not only does he make a great foil for Dexter—quiet and almost professorial, offering one- or two-word answers occasionally to help her—but his dexterity [I couldn’t resist] on the keys is a wonder to behold. As they say, “Watch out for the quiet ones.” There’s a volcano brewing in there and it comes out in his playing.
In the end, I’m not sure Dexter offers any hard and fast rules for the road. All I know is, I want to be there for the ride.
About the Author
Kevin Scott Hall performed in cabaret clubs for many years and recorded three CDs, including “New Light Dawning” in 1998, which received national airplay. He also worked at the legendary piano bar, Rose’s Turn, and has taught cabaret workshops and directed shows since 1995. Kevin earned his MFA in Creative Writing at City College of New York. He is an adjunct professor in the Theatre and English departments at City College and Borough of Manhattan Community College. His novel, “Off the Charts!” was published in 2010, and his memoir, “A Quarter Inch from My Heart” (Wisdom Moon), in 2014. Kevin writes a monthly column and entertainment features for Edge Media Network, writes reviews for BistroAwards.com, and freelances for other publications.