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Tonya Pinkins: A Woman on the Verge of a Cabaret Breakout

Barbara & Scott Siegel experience the volcanic Tonya Pinkins at Joe's Pub. logo

Tonya Pinkins
Joe's Pub continues to be the crossroads of musical theater and cabaret. Since its inception, the club has been the place to see stage folk come out from beneath the characters they play and be themselves (or some reasonable facsimile). From Audra MacDonald to Faith Prince, Joe's Pub has provided a high-visibility platform for singers to make a solo splash.

The most recent to take the plunge was the star of such Broadway shows as Play On! and Jelly's Last Jam, Tonya Pinkins, in a show she called The Music That Makes Me Sing. Her concept was simple: These are the songs she loves, and her job was to make us love them, too, not to mention making us love her as well. In her first attempt at a cabaret show, Pinkins was like an active volcano that rumbles and sends smoke in the air--she's gonna explode any moment, but it hasn't happened yet.

Pinkins is giddily close to finding her way as a solo artist. Though she has the vocal prowess necessary, and then some, to command a stage, she's not quite there yet in terms of honing her cabaret skills to take full advantage of her talent. But the lava is just beneath the surface. Unlike a lot of theater people who take a stab at cabaret, Pinkins connects with her audience in the most fundamental way: She makes great eye contact, whereas far too many other performers literally sing over the heads of their patrons, staring at some point about 12 feet off the ground that only they can see. Pinkins also delivers her patter in a personable, ingratiating style. Some of what she said at Joe's might have been suspect, and she might have occasionally gone on too long, but she was comfortably herself on stage. The only time her patter seemed unnatural was when she tried an overly elaborate, forced, and unfunny bit of shtick to get people to turn off their cell phones. But her comments on her real life experiences (e.g., the way she was able to cut corners to get her college degree in one year) worked just swell.

What Pinkins offers first and foremost, of course, is her extraordinary voice. It's an impressively rangy instrument over which she appears to have total control. She can shake Joe's Pub like a subway train with her deep, throaty tones (as in "So Many Stars"), show off her higher register like a bird on the wing ("Meadowlark" from The Baker's Wife by Schwartz), or open up the operatic floodgates ("Beautiful" coupled with "Paradise" from Michael John LaChiusa's Marie Christine). In numbers like these, Pinkins breaks down the barrier between herself and her audience, creating an intimate experience. The highpoint of the show is her rendition of Duke Ellington's "Nothin' But the Blues," a wonderful melding of substance and style.

Most of the songs mentioned above are performed in the first half of Pinkins' act. With only the rare exception, she didn't come anywhere near that quality in the second half. She did a wonderful job of personalizing "If I Could" (Miller/Hirsch & Sharron), a song about mother and child, sung to her son in the audience. But her jazz version of "Everybody Says Don't" (Sondheim, from Anyone Can Whistle) didn't capture the meaning of the lyrics, which was the case with a handful of selections that culminated with a pointless, poorly conceived Streisand medley. Musical director/pianist Daryl Waters did not provide Pinkins with consistent support; he appears to be a more limited arranger than she is a singer.

Pinkins has cabaret chops to go along with her vocal skills. When she sings with the real intention of communicating her emotions, she is dazzling. She can also be impressive when she sings strictly to show off her voice, but that creates an empty feeling. Still, it's fascinating to see her in transition. When that volcano blows, it's going to be quite a show.

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