Although his recent Don’t Tell Mama show, “Lady Songs,” had more than a few rough edges, Jake Mendes is, I think, on the right path to finding out who he is as a solo performer and what his place might be in New York’s cabaret community. Or, if he isn’t on that path quite yet, he seems to be in the right vicinity.
That said, throughout the first third or so of his show, I was ready to tag Mendes’s performance as competent but derivative—like that of a vocally gifted mimic at an open-mic piano bar or a karaoke club. I got the impression that he was emulating the performance styles of pop/rock/soul singers whose work he admired, but that he wasn’t as engaged with the material on a personal level as he might have been.
I wondered, too, whether Mendes failed to understand the conventions of a cabaret program or was consciously choosing to defy them. His opening sequence was certainly unusual: an unwieldy medley that contained about a third of the titles on his set list. The first two songs were an unsurprising pairing: the Gershwins’ “The Man I Love” and Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash’s “Speak Low.” He sang these songs in the sultry style of a lounge chanteuse who knows she’s hot stuff (Michelle Pfeiffer in the film The Fabulous Baker Boys could have been his model). But then—immediately—he segued jarringly into a sequence of 1960s songs associated with The Supremes and Tina Turner. On these numbers he was assisted by a pair of background singers: Hannah Rose DeFlumeri and the especially engaging Marissa Rosen. At one point, they took over the stage, with Mendes quipping blithely that he didn’t remember the lyric anyway. Only when this number concluded did Mendes pause to say good afternoon to his audience.
While there was good energy in the latter part of the medley, Mendes was, at points, overly mannered, both in terms of vocal technique and onstage demeanor. He relied overmuch on closed eyes, scrunched-up face, and angst-filled moans to convey emotion. Lyrics were frequently mumbled or slurred. His spoken banter throughout the set was perfunctory and vague: He would start to make a point but wind up with a “you know what I’m getting at” shrug. He seemed to want to present himself as detached and cool.
As the program continued, however, I became more favorably impressed with Mendes’s work. His take on Tori Amos’s “Leather” was thoughtful and confirmed solid vocal chops. He seemed to trust himself more. Then came another medley, featuring songs associated with Katy Perry, Britney Spears, and Beyoncé. “Teenage Dream” (Perry, Lukasz Gottwald, Max Martin, Benjamin Levin, Bonnie McKee) was a fun romp, in large part because of music director Vince di Mura’s exuberant piano work. In “…Baby One More Time” (Max Martin) Mendes humorously evoked the exorcism-worthy guttural snarls in Spears’s version while exploring the song’s attractive melodic contours in his own energetic way. Beyonce’s “Love on Top” (Beyoncé Knowles, Terius Nash, Shea Taylor) was lively and infectious.
But my favorite number of the set was a straightforward version of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”—the “leave my man alone” plea of a woman to a flashier rival. Mendes made the song a mournful, direct, and almost-panicked entreaty to the potential “other woman.” Throughout the song he seemed emotionally connected with the point of view of the distraught character.
As the set wound down, Mendes’s success in reimagining contemporary pop songs resumed with two Lady Gaga titles, a gospel-tinged “Edge of Glory” and a slowed-down “Bad Romance” (his encore, during which he accompanied himself handily on piano). His interpretations here and in the Perry/Spears/Beyoncé medley were shaped partly by di Mura’s arrangements. But they suggested that Mendes understands what he needs to be doing on a cabaret stage: putting his own stamp on the material and then living, breathing, and exploring possibilities within the emotional parameters of each song.
Here’s hoping that in his next cabaret outing he will continue in this vein and perhaps engage a knowledgeable director who can help him nourish and better display his talents. In the interim, I hope he will see (and learn from) as many cabaret shows—both good and bad—as he can, especially some sets from seasoned pros who wouldn’t dream of singing a selection from the Britney Spears songbook.
Finally, there was a charming moment in the closing part of Mendes’s show when he acknowledged two young girls in the audience—piano students of his. It was a moment of warmth that belied his previous attitude of insouciant chill. I hope that the next time I see Jake Mendes onstage, there will be more moments like that one.
Don’t Tell Mama – August 15, 16
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.