Count yourself lucky if you've heard Helen Schneider sing. This U.S.-born-and-raised singer/actress is a sensation in Germany, where she stars in musicals and sells out concert tours. It's true that a fair number of Americans know her work--witness the twice-packed Alice Tully Hall last year when she offered a concert titled A Walk on the Weill Side. But with her rich, throbbing voice, impeccable acting instincts, and her ever-youthful beauty, Schneider should be one of Broadway's biggest musical theater stars. Though circumstances beyond her control sent her to Germany, her talent is such that her native land keeps luring her back. She returned just recently for two sold out engagements at Weill Recital Hall to launch the release of her seventeenth CD, Cool Heat.
Accompanied only by her musical director/pianist Bob Kaye, Schneider shared an intimate evening of American standards adapted to her unique style, which might be described as a combination of theatrical jazz and blues. While still a teenager, she began her career as the lead singer in a blues band, later veering into pop, movies (Eddie and the Cruisers), and musical theater. Lovers of traditional blues might not take to Schneider because she isn't as earthy as Ruth Brown or Baby Jane Dexter, for example. There is something cerebral--but also passionate--in the way she interprets lyrics. Also, Schneider favors songs that are more often heard in cabaret than in jazz or blues clubs, e.g., Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin" and "Love for Sale." She sings the former like a real person with real feelings; rather than showing off her voice, she reveals her soul. In the latter number, Schneider's vocal prowess allows her to create an emotional firestorm--but it's still about the lyric, not the pyrotechnics.
On her CD, she sings "Stormy Weather" with a direct simplicity. At Weill, however, she put "When the Sun Comes Out" at the front end of a coupling of the two numbers. This was one of her few missteps; she should have reversed the order to create a more satisfying theatrical arc. But her biggest mistake had to do with her talking rather than her singing. Unlike the concert last year at Tully, which was entirely scripted, this was a purposefully casual show with ad-libbed patter that didn't fly. At one point, Schneider ruefully recalled that a critic had once nailed her for opening her mouth to talk between numbers. That criticism still applies: Her rambling, inarticulate remarks at Weill undercut her image as a sophisticated chanteuse.
Fortunately, when she stopped talking and sang songs like "I've Got the World on a String," Schneider roped in the audience with a swinging romanticism that was somehow both breezy and deeply felt. Aided by Bob Kaye's imaginative arrangements, skillfully built around Schneider's twin gifts as an actress and a singer, this was a thrillingly eclectic program of music that had these critics aching to see Helen Schneider on Broadway. In the meantime, check out her Cool Heat CD for a strong sense of this unique and compelling talent.