It's fascinating to watch an entertainer rely on his or her native talent and skills when presenting a show that is not fully polished. Such is the case with Claiborne Cary in her current act at Danny's Skylight Room, called Auntie Clai Sings. In a fundamental way, that familial title cleverly smoothes over the rough edges of her performance. Who, after all, would complain if their charming aunt made a flub or two? Besides, one of the things "Auntie Clai" does best is throw off an ad lib or make a funny face when she makes a mistake. This invariably charms the audience, so she relies on it--perhaps a bit too much. The show should be sharper, tighter, better...but Claiborne Cary has so many tools at her disposal that she can find a way to bolster the act whenever it threatens to collapse.
Cary doesn't possess the most mellifluous voice in town but she's a gifted actress who can put over most any song when she knows the lyrics. More often than not, she does--and it helps when you've written the song yourself. When she sings her own compositoin "Live Performance," the number has the sound of experience in it and she makes it stick. Cary can be devastating in a story song but comedy comes easier to her. She has a Cheshire cat grin to go with her mischievous eyes; they work overtime during her innuendo-driven rendition of "Play Your Song For Me" by Tom Andersen.
It's that air of knowing just what you're thinking before you think it that gives Cary an edge. If some performers come off "too hip for the room," she wins the audience over by making us feel that we're all too hip for the world outside the room. She does this with material like John Wallowitch's "Cosmetic Surgery," a song that comically names celebrities who have had their tummies tucked and their hips lipoed.
Cary has a big personality. She's most effective when she slightly underplays, whether slicing a bit of comedy or stabbing at the heart. As a comedian, it's her slyness that gets the laughs; as a song stylist, it's the pathos beneath her bravado that persuades. She errs whenever she goes over the top rather than under it. For instance, she foolishly goes for broad laughs when she delivers Cole Porter's "Love for Sale" in the persona of an over-the-hill prostitute in handcuffs. This lady is too classy for such clowning. Happily, she recoups before the evening is out with one of her signature songs, "Too Old to Die Young."
Overall, this is a sloppy, purposefully casual show that works largely on the basis of Claiborne Cary's personality. Tedd Firth is a gifted jazz pianist and a talented musical director but he's a bit wasted on Cary, who really needs a strong director. Auntie Clai Sings once more at Danny's on Thursday, May 30 at 7pm.