Teresa Eggertsen-Cooke

September 29, 2014

Teresa Eggertsen-CookeThere’s a particular challenge for cabaret performers who are singer-pianists. When they come to the stage and sit down at the instrument, the very configuration can suggest a “piano bar” sort of show. Such singers face the ivories as much as they face the audience. Their hands are primarily occupied with the keyboard and are thereby largely unavailable to be used expressively in the way a singer standing at a microphone is able to do. Unless singer-pianists emulate the frenetic Jerry Lee Lewis, they are pretty much tied to the piano bench or stool for the duration of the performance. And if there are other musicians sharing the stage, the singer-pianist must also worry about cueing them, setting the tempos, and so on.

Utah-based singer-pianist Teresa Eggertsen-Cooke has a folk-jazz approach to performance and a smooth, warm vocal quality. She is friendly yet laid-back, stylish yet informal. And she seems eager to sing and sing and sing—in fact, she packed so many songs into her recent Metropolitan Room show, “Decades of Song,” that the voice from the sound booth heralded her finish before she was in fact ready and willing to leave the stage.

And, unfortunately, her show felt mostly like a glorified piano-bar set.

What was missing from Eggertsen-Cooke’s performance was a sense of occasion. Her song list seemed to be the menu for a sprawling musical smorgasbord. More thought could have been devoted to the selection and ordering of songs. On some numbers, the singer demonstrated a capacity for nuance and emotional commitment to the material, but she didn’t keep everyone listening with rapt ears. Clearly there were avid admirers of hers in the audience, yet some of them–notably those at the table next to mine–had no compunction about chattering with one another during her performance, as if they were in a club where the music wasn’t the main event. At times Eggertsen-Cooke seemed to be providing background music, uncomfortably foregrounded.

Late in the program, the singer mentioned that “Decades of Song” was dedicated to the memory of a dear friend who had succumbed to ALS. Certain songs she sang had special meaning in the context of their friendship. Had she made mention of this point earlier and followed through with it throughout, it might have helped give the show more shape and focus. Something of that sort was needed.

She delivered a number of Cole Porter songs, including an interesting, eccentrically syncopated “Night and Day.” On “All of You” she ran significant variations on the melody line, to the extent that the original tune was nearly lost. Something similar happened on “My Baby Just Cares for Me” (Walter Donaldson, Gus Kahn). This tendency went beyond mere jazz embellishment—it reminded me of some of the odd performances by pop singers in the 2004 Porter film biography De-Lovely, in which certain Porter lyrics were sung to Lord knows what melody. Though Eggertsen-Cooke clearly admires American Songbook classics, they don’t seem to be her forte. A sameness seems to set in with them after a while.

She did much better with later-era pop songs associated with such performers as Bette Midler, Carole King, Elton John, and Cyndi Lauper. Her rendition of “The Rose” (Amanda McBroom) was heartfelt and suited her vocal style and approach. Her playing on King’s “Home Again” was particularly inspired. And when she sang, “Yours are the sweetest eyes I’ve ever seen” during John’s “Your Song,” there was an emotional charge: she was clearly invested in lyricist Bernie Taupin’s sentiment.

Trombonist Ben Lepley joined her on certain numbers. While the combination of voice, piano, and trombone was something of a novelty and the sound was sometimes appealing, Epley came across as unsure, and Eggertsen-Cooke seemed to be working hard to cue him as to what he should be doing from moment to moment. Additional rehearsal time might have helped.

Eggertsen-Cooke’s vocal prowess, musicality, and potential for good rapport with the audience all seem to be at hand. I just hope that the next time she plays in a cabaret setting she will have found a director able to help shape her show and avoid the tendency toward passivity that comes with “piano bar syndrome.” She needs to pilot the show from behind the keyboard, confidently transporting her audience to the intended destination.

“Decades of Song”
Metropolitan Room  –  September 20


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.