“I’d Rather Be Doing This…”
Metropolitan Room – February 12, March 5, April 18
If there is any lingering doubt that an intimate cabaret room can conjure up magic like little else, and that blazing stars can be made in those dark little spaces, one need only seek out Janice Hall and erase those doubts forever. In her new show, “I’d Rather Be Doing This…,” at the Metropolitan Room, she balances poise and passion with her delightful set of songs, completely invested in each and every one. I missed Hall’s Bistro Award-winning debut show about Marlene Dietrich, but I did see her weekly in the MetroStar Talent Challenge of 2010, where she placed in the Top Five. Her growth since then has been astonishing. She may have spent a good part of her career singing opera across Europe, but now she fully owns the cabaret genre.
Hall steps onto the stage wearing a black and silver sleeveless tunic over black leggings and boots, managing to look both elegant and continental hip. After opening with a gorgeous ballad version of “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” (Rodgers & Hammerstein), Hall introduces the act by saying that after her Dietrich show, “I just wanted to sing a collection of beautiful songs that didn’t fit into any concept.” My guess is that without the constraints of a theme show built around an iconic figure, Hall was eager to open up and show us who she is herself, which is plenty.
She then moves to Cole Porter’s “You Don’t Know Paree.” When she gets to the line “Until you’ve lived a lot, and loved a lot, and lost a lot, you don’t know Paree,” one senses that she’s been through all that but is soldiering on with all the humor she can muster up. Next, Hall is feline-frisky on Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh’s “When in Rome (I Do as the Romans Do),” tossing off tricky lines (like “And though from Italy/ I lie to you prettily/ Don’t think of me bitterly/ You know that I’m true”) with great panache.
Hall knows exactly what kind of material to pick for her intelligent, understated comedy. The opera star comes out on “Mala Femmena” (Toto), when she passionately belts the Italian while musical director/pianist Matthew Martin Ward earnestly and hilariously translates in a flat American accent. Then she launches into “Bet He Can Tango” (Nancy White), and her expressive eyes and sultry moves imbue the song with sass and sexiness. In fact, Janice Hall seems to know who she is from the tips of her outstretched fingers to the tips of her toes. There is not a wasted gesture or facial expression in the entire hour-plus presentation.
It’s difficult not to single out every song for praise, from the rare Sondheim gem “Sand” (where virtuoso guitarist Tony Romano stands out, plucking those impossibly high, wailing notes) to “L’Accordéoniste” (Michel Emer), when Hall gives us her boldest singing so far. She begins “Too Darn Hot” (Cole Porter) a cappella, snapping her fingers with a slow, measured beat, then the musicians join in and the number builds and builds to a fervent inferno.
The title song, written especially for her by Ward and her director, Peter Napolitano, was a risky choice. The novelty number has clever lyrics that occasionally skirt the edge of raunchiness, but Hall reads more classy and elegant. However, her winning performance and clear delight in singing it make it work.
Finally, she prefaces a pairing of “My Ship” (Kurt Weill, Ira Gershwin) and “Pirate Jenny” (Weill, Marc Blitzstein) by telling the audience how relevant the second song still is in expressing “the inner life of the downtrodden, especially women who are mistreated.” The character Hall assumes has a touch of madness, and the storytelling is mesmerizing—I hung on every word. Hall closes with a comical reading of “As We Stumble Along” (Lisa Lambert, Greg Morrison) and, as an added treat at the performance I attended, a medley from her Dietrich show, which had just been nominated for a MAC Award.
The piano/guitar combo of Ward and Romano works wonderfully, and director Napolitano must be praised for the work he has done with Ms. Hall. Janice Hall is performing with great joy at the height of professionalism. This is a master class in how it’s done. But studying has never been this much fun.
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.