"Bravo, bravo," a man shouted over thunderous applause as Jane Lynch took the stage of 54 Below. She hadn't even sung a note and already people were screaming her praises in Italian. Like a rock star, her very presence elicits such a response. She's beloved for her Emmy-winning portrayal of Sue Sylvester on Glee and acclaimed for her turn as Miss Hannigan in the Broadway revival of Annie. The world of cabaret seems the next logical step in her global conquest.
"There's a notion that cabaret is just an excuse for a self-involved actor to hold an audience hostage for an hour, singing songs they have no business singing and telling anecdotes from their unremarkable lives," Lynch prefaces the evening over a soft piano riff, adding, "That always seemed like something I'd like to do." She then launches into "If Wishes Were Rainbows," a tongue-in-cheek power ballad by Faith Soloway, an old friend from Lynch's days with improv-comedy troupe Second City. Its saccharine sweetness is enough to give even the most ardent Glee fans a toothache.
Adorned in a double-breasted black pantsuit and sporting her iconic short blonde haircut, Lynch has the aura of Ellen DeGeneres' evil twin sister, the one who's even funnier, but acidly so. Her considerable talent for deadpan humor blends well with her taste for so-bad-it's-good folk kitsch. She performs not one, but two songs by The Folksmen, the fictitious folk-rock trio from A Mighty Wind: "Blood on the Coals" (about a train wreck in a coal mine) and "The Skeletons of Quinto," a Spanish Civil War ballad that Lynch introduces with a history lesson about "Generalissimo James Franco."
Longtime friend and collaborator Kate Flannery (NBC's The Office) joins Lynch for these two numbers, manically bopping in the background like a deranged Andrews sister. Flannery is onstage for all but three of the numbers, so it is more of a duet than a solo performance. They have a witty repartee and harmonize well, especially on Carson Parks' "Something Stupid." Sure, they may not hit every note with perfection, but what they lack in technical skill they more than make up for in comedic chops. These ladies know how to sell a song. They dedicate a version of Jefferson Airplane's psychedelic rock song "White Rabbit" to the recently departed actress Ann B. Davis. With rewritten lyrics about The Brady Bunch, the phrase "Go Ask Alice" has never felt more poignant.
As you might have discerned from the eccentric set list and faux-personal audience banter, nothing about this show is sincere. Lynch begins her performance of Irving Berlin's "Mr. Monotony" by expressing her abhorrence of boring people, "as a fascinating person." While cabaret often entails a performer opening up to an intimate room and personalizing the material she is singing (or at least feigning honest emotion), Lynch seems to be playing a character at 54 Below, a diet version of her hard-edged narcissistic stage and screen roles. She's Sue Sylvester Lite. And at an anemic 50 minutes (tops), the show also feels a bit light in substance.
Music director Todd Ellison supports Lynch and Flannery from behind the piano. Percussionist Ryan McDaniel gives his bongos a workout while Maryanne McSweeney rounds out the band on bass. All three sing backup for Lynch and Flannery on "The Party's Over," a Styne-Comden-Green number from the musical Bells Are Ringing. Their voices sweetly overlap into the microphones, creating an effect very similar to the choral track from a Henry Mancini movie score. It's as if Lynch is saying, This is the end of our cheesy cabaret journey, my huckleberry friends.
You'll definitely laugh heartily throughout the show. Lynch and Flannery are both very funny. Just don't expect to walk away with any new revelations about Lynch as a performer. What you see is what you get, and judging by the insane applause at the end of the show, plenty of people are just fine with that.