Baby Jane Dexter is one of cabaret's grand communicators. She and Andrea Marcovicci (and one doesn't often put those two in the same sentence!) are the best at making you feel as if they're performing just for you. The title of Baby Jane's new show at Arci's Place is titled With Arms Wide Open, but she communicates with her heart wide open. Expressive eyes that sweep across a cabaret room like high beams on a dark and lonely highway light the way to her soul, and she exposes that soul in one sensationally sung song after another. Though we've heard her in better voice than at the performance we attended, she sang with such ferocity that it hardly mattered.
Baby Jane has a mighty appetite for the blues, and she makes you feel her pain when she sings "Walk A Mile In My Shoes" (Wohlford/Lewis). She has an even greater appetite for love, as demonstrated in her renditions of "I Want More" (Billie Holiday) and "Is You Is" (Austin/Jordan). While she is known primarily as a blues singer, her show is finally less about heartbreak and sorrow than it is about "Taking a Chance On Love". Her version of that Duke/Latouche/Fetter standard takes its own chances with a playful jazz arrangement by her elegantly inventive musical director/pianist, Ross Patterson.
And that's not the only chance she takes. In this show, Baby Jane puts her indelible and indomitable stamp on musical theater songs. If she missteps with "The Gentlemen is a Dope" (Rodgers & Hammerstein), a number that doesn't suit her, she brings a knowing and accepting ruefulness to a reading of "Hello Young Lovers" (also by R&H) that is shot through with romance. It's lovely.
Finally, it's impossible to review a Baby Jane Dexter show without commenting on her patter. Often as not, she'll start down one road and detour to another. Sometimes it's a dead end...and sometimes you'll die laughing. While her remarks are an acquired taste, they never feel scripted and are always in the moment. Baby Jane is appearing Tuesdays through Saturdays at Arci's Place through December 29.
Also at Arci's is musical theater star Priscilla Lopez who is making her New York City cabaret debut with this engagement of a show titled What I Did for Love. She came to fame as Morales in the original production of A Chorus Line and won a Tony Award for her performance in A Day in Hollywood...A Night in the Ukraine. This is a carefully structured, tightly directed autobiographical show that includes selections from the musicals in which Lopez appeared.
The first two-thirds of her act has its appeal less in the music and more in the story of her struggle to establish herself in the theater. For instance, she was in the cast of the infamous Broadway bomb Breakfast at Tiffany's starring Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain. She uses the title tune and another song called "Traveling" from that ill-fated score to help propel her story. With Seth Rudetsky as her musical director, the songs, themselves, take center stage in the last third of her act when she finally gets to the shows for which she is best known. And she doesn't disappoint her fans. In addition to singing her signature songs "Nothing" and "What I Did For Love" from A Chorus Line, she also performs a witty send-up of "Nothing" called "Something." Her acting skills are as sharp as ever so she killed with the comedy of "Something" just as she seared with her rendition of Jerry Herman's "Best in the World" from A Day in Hollywood...
As a matter of full disclosure: Lopez sang these latter two songs at Town Hall for the Broadway's Helping Hands Benefit Concert produced by this column's Scott Siegel and directed by Thommie Walsh, who is also the director of Lopez's cabaret act. The event was held to raise funds to buy tickets for Broadway shows to be distributed to policemen, firemen, rescue workers, and the families of the victims of 9/11.