Carmen Cusack makes her New York City cabaret debut at Feinstein's/54 Below.
Carmen Cusack makes her New York City cabaret debut at Feinstein's/54 Below.
(© Taryn Kimel)

"Never go to a house party hosted by someone who just wrote a musical," Mike Nichols allegedly told Steve Martin, "because they'll spend the whole time singing songs cut from the show." That proves to be partially true with Carmen Cusack in her debut performance at Feinstein's/54 Below. The underground supper club is basically Broadway's living room, so it is only appropriate that its newest star host a soirée there. Cusack recently led the Broadway cast of Martin and Edie Brickell's short-lived Bright Star. Appropriately, Cusack's first several songs are from that show, although not all of them appeared on the Broadway stage.

She enters singing "Strong Is the Heart," a haunting melody that was removed from the final version of the show. This gives way to the rollicking bluegrass shindig "Yes She Did." Finally, we land on Cusack's warm and enchanting version of "If You Knew My Story" (the only one of the three to make the final cut). In a conspiratorial tone, she reveals snippets of lost Bright Star lore: "Alice Murphy used to have a sister called Dora...and she was present on the train that day."

"No!" gasped a male patron at this shocking revelation (the dining room hosted a sizable contingent of Bright Star super fans the night I attended). Is there any way to install a campfire in the dining room for moments like these?

It's not all an elegy for Bright Star, though. Cusack has had the mix-and-match career of a true working actress. She pays homage to some of her past roles in a medley that draws from four of the biggest shows of the last 30 years: She guzzles water from a giant bottle of Fiji water before busting out her operatic soprano for Think of Me from Phantom. When Cusack sings "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Misérables, her terrified eyes suggest that when the tigers come at night, they're coming through the front door at that exact second. She performs an exuberant "The Wizard and I" from Wicked, wrapping up with a soaring version of "Back to Before" from Ragtime.

One role Cusack has never played onstage is Lucille Frank in Jason Robert Brown's Parade, but after witnessing her gut-wrenching performance of "You Don't Know This Man," anyone would agree that she really should. She testifies the lyrics with perfect clarity of speech and purpose. While her upper register isn't as ironclad as that of Carolee Carmello (the actress who originated the role), she leans into the higher notes with a distinctive wail that conveys pure emotion, be it righteous anger, pain, or pure joy.

Cusack's care with lyrics likely stems from the fact that she is also a very talented singer-songwriter. She performs two of her original songs: the contemplative "Middle Lane" (about her life in London) and the flirty and playful "Shane" (about an old fling). She delivers the latter with a guitar strapped around her, serving us a bit of Ani DiFranco realness.

The supporting band is just as talented, especially violinist Martha McDonnell (who also featured prominently in Bright Star). McDonnell's warm delivery and rich dynamics help re-create the Broadway magic on the cabaret stage. Music director Anthony De Angeles looks like he's really having a lot of fun up there, bobbing his head back and forth. His classy piano riffs on a somewhat Brazilian arrangement of Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster's "Secret Love" make us feel like we're in a jazz club.

Of course, Cusack brings us home with more Bright Star, leading the audience in a sing-along of the dangerously catchy "Sun Is Gonna Shine" before ending with her soulful eleven-o'clock number, "At Long Last." It seems clear that her affection for the show isn't just because it was her Broadway debut. Cusack packs a vocal wallop yet somehow manages to never overwhelm the emotional heft of the lyrics. Her voice is the ideal vessel for American folk and bluegrass, two genres that are increasingly asserting themselves in the realm of musical theater. Hopefully, that means we'll be seeing a lot more of her in the future.