Warren is almost too proficient, calculatedly so. Within a couple of numbers, we've got her number. Song after song (after song) follows a similar arc as she starts off mousy-piano and builds to a big, fortissimo finish. She has a fantastic voice, especially at full throttle, and exquisite diction; but, with only a few exceptions, her tour de force feels like a forced march.
Some of the blame lies with co-creator Amanda Dehnert, who, as accompanist, perhaps didn't have the opportunity to step out from behind the piano and do much directing. Only from the audience's vantage point -- the seating has been reconfigured to incorporate naugahyde booths and a working bar in keeping with the roadhouse theme -- can one see how tiresome all the stage business is. Warren constantly fiddles with her mane of red hair, flipping it from loose to pony tail to bun and back again in order to help suggest an array of characters as her chorister cohorts futz with her clothes.
This busywork is both distracting and ineffective: A raincoat and porkpie hat do not a middle-aged man make of a woman. (At best, Warren resembles David Bowie having a bad wardrobe day.) And there really ought to be a law proscribing sopranos from essaying the songs of Tom Waits. Drop the belabored cross-dressing and over-literal pantomime -- do we really need to see a body draped abed to get the gist of "Ruby's Arms?" -- and this show would be stronger and tighter. It's as if no one trusted the songs to pull their own weight.
A few of them do so anyway. Warren is touching when she plays a child in Lyle Lovett's bouncy, joyous "If I Had a Boat" and again in Dar Williams's "The Babysitter's Here." She's brilliant as a bitter adolescent in Jonathan Brook's "God Damn Everything / Circus" and in the teen-angel anti-anthem "Alleluia" (Williams again). In general, she's at her best when she has someone to play off of -- optimally, as in the latter two numbers, mezzo Miriam Silverman, who has a dancer's articulated body and a nice, warm timbre to her voice. It's intriguing to imagine how much richer this Songs cycle would be if the spotlight were more equitably shared.
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