Dora Rubin understands the usefulness of surprise in a cabaret set. This singer—who in years past would have been described as “offbeat”—takes risks that performers far more experienced than she might avoid. And while the surprises she hatches may land with varying degrees of precision, she never fails to hold the audience’s attention. I found her current Metropolitan Room show, “Same Pony—Different Dress,” to be brilliant. That’s a word I rarely use. But I apply it to Rubin by citing its literal meaning: As she moved through her hour of song and patter, a kind of brightness emanated from the stage.
At the performance I attended, her first unexpected volley was to start the show not with a song but with an old vaudeville-style bit (one that earned laughs despite its hoariness), followed by a speech inviting the audience to go on a journey with her to a place “between science and superstition”: “The Dora Zone.” When she finally got around to singing, it was—of all things—Kander and Ebb’s “Money,” from Cabaret, performed as a loping country-swing number. She turned up the volume unexpectedly on the bridge, and late in the song began shouting such lines as “Where’s the money?” and “Follow the paper trail!” at members of the audience. After that, how could anyone not be paying full attention?
The show consists of several sequences, quite different one from another. One extended early section centers on a disturbing (though not a humor-free) confessional story about having been physically abused as a child and finding solace in songs and solitude (Brian Wilson and Gary Usher’s “In My Room”). This leads to an anecdote about a pony, which then morphs into a stream-of-consciousness spiel about Rubin’s youthful obsession with the male stars of TV westerns, such as Bonanza and Wagon Train. Imagining herself as a singer in the Silver Dollar Saloon with a shocking-pink bow on each shoulder, she sings a tender “My Pony, My Rifle and Me” (Dimitri Tiomkin, Paul Francis Webster, from Rio Bravo). The sequence wraps with a powerful “It Goes Like It Goes” (David Shire, Norman Gimbel) that briefly reprises “In My Room” and hearkens back to the abuse theme. At one point, Rubin’s performance of this number sent a shiver through my body.
Next up is a sequence in which Rubin sings in Italian—beginning with a sassy, frenetic, and loony “Via Con Me” (Paolo Conte). She grows more serious for a version of David Friedman’s “Listen to My Heart,” also sung in Italian. (Friedman was in the audience at the show I saw.) Finally, as if jet-packing in from a different district of the Dora Zone, she delivers a focused and stirring “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot (Giacomo Puccini, Giuseppe Adami, Renato Simoni).
And so the show goes. You never quite anticipate what Rubin will spring next. In a later sequence, she takes on the persona of a country gal, “Dorcas Mae.” This seems to be at first a purely comic episode until, without skipping a beat, she begins to channel Lady Macbeth. This is topped off by a rendition of “Crazy Women” (Brandy Clark, Jessie Jo Dillon, Sharon McAnally) in which Dora/Dorcas/Lady M. seriously “gets down.”
There is room for tightening in the show. For instance, it could be made clearer whether the Italian episode is meant to be performed by a separate character, as is the case with Dorcas Mae, or whether it’s just Rubin being multilingual. And the emotionally intense sequence of songs at the end of the show, culminating in a yearning “Calling All Angels” (Jane Siberry), might be trimmed a bit for maximum emotional effect.
On the other hand, part of the show’s effectiveness can be attributed to its looseness. At the performance I saw, Rubin often seemed to be ad-libbing—tossing out quips that tickled her (very adept) musicians: pianist and musical director Barry Levitt, guitarist Jack Cavari, and bassist Boots Maleson.
But what really makes the show work is Rubin’s full-tilt commitment to everything she does. She has an attractive but occasionally rather thin-sounding voice. However, when she sings “Nessun Dorma” or “Calling All Angels,” you overlook such a limitation because she manages to make the best possible use of the instrument she has (yet never seems to force anything).
In sum, I was both impressed and moved by Dora Rubin, and I have promised myself to catch whatever she comes up with in future engagements.
“Same Pony—Different Dress”
Metropolitan Room – January 30, July 15, September 15, November 3
About the Author
Mark Dundas Wood is an arts/entertainment journalist and dramaturg. He began writing reviews for BistroAwards.com in 2011. More recently he has contributed "Cabaret Setlist" articles about cabaret repertoire. Other reviews and articles have appeared in theaterscene.net and clydefitchreport.com, as well as in American Theatre and Back Stage. As a dramaturg, he has worked with New Professional Theatre and the New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is currently literary manager for Broad Horizons Theatre Company.