“I Know a Place”
Feinstein’s at Loews Regency – May 23 – June 2
How refreshing it is, in an age when self-promotion and a jaded attitude trump other attributes, that an artist like Jennifer Sheehan, who epitomizes niceness in every way, can make a splash in the upper echelons of New York’s cabaret world. Depending on one’s fantasy, Sheehan can be the good daughter, the faithful girlfriend, the true friend, the doting wife, or the advising sister. In short, Sheehan could be the new “America’s sweetheart,” when such a thing seems to have gone out of style.
However, it would be a mistake to assume that niceness somehow suggests a lack of serious talent. In her current show, “I Know a Place,” a tribute to the music of the 1960s, Sheehan takes on songs closely associated with artists like Karen Carpenter, Diana Ross, Blossom Dearie, Barbra Streisand, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Judy Garland—and comes up aces every time. Along the way, through over two dozen songs (many included in medleys), she makes a convincing case that the ’60s were, indeed, a treasure trove of great songs and styles that would rank near the top of anyone’s list of decades of popular music.
After a radio voiceover done by her father (who happened to be a Chicago deejay in the ’60s), Sheehan enters the room in jaunty fashion wearing a period white and silver mini-dress and her hair pulled back in a modest bouffant, delivering Tony Hatch’s “I Know a Place,” setting the tone for her warm and energetic style. In fact, if we had variety shows now like they did back then, she’d be an ideal host.
During her patter, Sheehan displays a girlishness that seems to work because we get caught up in her excitement about her discoveries from that decade. But when she settles into a song, that girl disappears and—watch out—she has a vocal instrument that absolutely transports the listener to another place. Sheehan makes great use of the unfettered, unshowy straight tone. When she begins a Bacharach/David medley with “Close to You,” about a half-step or so north of Carpenter’s memorable alto, she bathes it in a warmth and intimacy reminiscent of her famous predecessor. Through “This Guy’s in Love With You,” “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” and “Knowing When to Leave,” she shows herself a superb interpreter of the Bacharach/David canon and I long for her to devote an entire show to their music—if for no other reason than to hear the songs in their entirety, sung by that wondrous voice.
As expected, the Beatles also get a medley, but she wisely eschews the obvious choices and eases into some lesser known ballads, starting with the first few lines of “I Will” a cappella, that voice floating on air before the piano and guitar tiptoe in, seamlessly weaving a spell through a few more songs and ending with “In My Life.”
The other big trend of that decade, the Motown sound, gets shorter shrift—in fact, just a verse and chorus of “Come See About Me” (Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland, Eddie Holland). It’s a shame, because she surprises with the soulfulness and swing she brings to it. Sheehan is a vocal chameleon, adaptable to any style, and yet it never seems put on. Likewise, her pitch and diction are flawless, but her delivery never seems studied. Honesty is her hallmark trait.
To see this young woman, who projects such innocence, turn all kittenish on “Blossom’s Blues” (Blossom Dearie), singing “I’m an evil evil woman but I want to do a man some good/I’m Gina Lollobrigida, I ain’t red riding hood” is a real treat. She even scats with ease!
Sheehan manages to cram in the other big songwriters of the day (Paul Simon, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini) and theatre songs (e.g., Sondheim’s “With So Little Too Be Sure Of”). She displays ample comic chops with the parody piece “The Boy From…” (Mary Rodgers and Esteban Rio Nido, né Stephen Sondheim) and immediately follows with “No More Blues (Chega de Saudade)” by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes, English lyrics by Jon Hendricks and Jessie Cavanaugh. Both songs are lyrically daunting for a singer, but Sheehan sails through them with style. Best of all is her leisurely paced version of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” (Carole King, Gerry Goffin). She is so present and intimate, you could close your eyes and swear she was lying next to you. Her goodness is so palpable, if you were on the receiving end, you’d try your very best never to break her heart. It was simply one of those cabaret moments to be remembered for a lifetime.
Sheehan has her talented musical trio in the palm of her hand. They serve her with such gorgeous and nonintrusive accompaniment, one could almost forget they are there: musical director James Followell, percussionist Dan Gross, and Craig Magnano on bass and guitar. All in all, the show is a little too PBS-Special, overloaded with historical information, but her enthusiasm makes up for it. (She doesn’t credit a director, but gives thanks to her mother for helping her with ’60s expertise.) One could also quibble that the musical selections are ballad-heavy, but when the singing is this good, it’s hard to complain.
At the end of “Once in a Lifetime” (Leslie Bricusse, Anthony Newley), Sheehan triumphantly sings, “I’m going to do great things!” After seeing this show, one would be hard-pressed to doubt it.
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.