Wacko Jacq. O.
Barbara and Scott take in some shows inspired by celebrities and experience one legend in the flesh: Ruth Brown.
Reese bears a reasonable resemblance to Jackie and, thanks to spot-on costuming by Claudia Montes Edlin and Victoria Runco and the carefully considered hair and makeup work by Lisa Kapler, the transformation begins to take shape. Add Reese's breathy rendition of Jackie's speaking voice and you'll buy into her portrayal right quick -- on a surface level, at least.
Looking and sounding like Jackie is one thing; revealing the woman's character is something else entirely. That's what's clearly intended from the opening sequence when, as Jackie waves in slow motion to an adoring crowd, she slowly begins to undress, peeling away layers of artifice: the tailored suit, the sunglasses, everything except a slip. In this elegant opening, director Charles Messina and writer Reese indicate that they are going to dig deep and give us the real Jackie. Unfortunately, the play does not follow through on that promise.
Falling somewhere between bad writing and camp, Cirque Jacqueline lurches episodically through Jackie's life. It's hard to know how one should respond to the play because, though trite, it often seems completely sincere. At other times, it appears to be a hilarious dark comedy. Take for example the moment when Jackie arrives at the hospital in Dallas on November 22, 1963 to see her dying husband. Does she rush headlong into the operating room? Does she demand to see a doctor? No. She stops in the lobby and announces that the wallpaper is hideously ugly: "Don't they know that this could be the last thing people see before they die?" This is the best line in the play. The only other sequence that begins to match it is Jackie's job interview at Doubleday, which also had us laughing at her surreal lack of self-awareness.
To be fair, the house was packed and the audience seemed to love the show. Why? We have no idea. The impersonation of Jackie is impressive but the play does no more than reveal her as a shallow young lady, a shallow First Lady, and a shallow old lady. Most of the time, it asks us to accept Jackie at face value. And that's really all that Cirque Jacqueline offers: face value.
In a two-person musical called Picon Pie: A Slice of Life With Molly Picon, we get the life story of one of the great stars of the Yiddish Theater rammed down our throats. Unrelentingly cute, Rose Leiman Goldemberg's work insists upon making us Picon's confidantes without ever earning the right to do so. Molly (the game Barbara Minkus) talks to us like we're her best pals. This may work for some of the oldest patrons in the audience who are contemporaries of the late, great Picon but it's off-putting to younger people who don't enter the DR2 Theatre with an immediate affection for the show's heroine.
The best part of the show is the performance of the songs; all of them are credibly, even endearingly sung by Ms. Minkus, who is occasionally joined by the impressive Stuart Zagnit as Yonkel, Molly's husband/manager. The basic information about Picon's life is inherently interesting but here it is artlessly imparted. The same history and music could have been more fruitfully put across in a cabaret act in which the talk was considerably shortened and made much more pointed.
Ruth Brown is Back!
It's been five years since the majestic Ruth Brown last performed in New York City. The icon, who has an honored place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, starred on Broadway in Black and Blue and on film in Hairspray. We last saw her at Rainbow & Stars and it's a blessing to have her back in NYC, this time at Le Jazz Au Bar.
Brown has to be helped to a chair where she sits and sings her set, but the spark is still there -- and, every now and then, that spark flares into a fire. It doesn't matter that her voice is a little ragged or that she occasionally drops a lyric. This appearance gives audiences a chance to touch a little bit of history and to bask in the afterglow of greatness.
Natalie Does Barbra
There is a self-limiting tendency among cabaret artists to create shows for each other rather than for general audiences. In order to take an act out of New York and perform it in front of people who might buy a ticket without knowing the singer's name, the subject matter has to be what sells. However you felt about Our Sinatra, that was an example of a cabaret show with considerable appeal outside the confines of a half-dozen Manhattan venues. We bring this up because Natalie Douglas recently presented a show at Iridium that has potential national appeal. It's called All Barbra: The Early Years -- and we all know what Barbra she's talking about.
Though the concept is commercially savvy, Douglas's first presentation of the show suggested that it needs more work before it heads out into the hinterlands. Unsure of her facts, Douglas didn't come across as a genuine Streisand authority in her patter. An audience needs to believe that the information they receive in an act like this one is 100 proof.
There was a similar hesitancy in Douglas's performances of a number of songs in her program. Capable of bringing the house down at any given moment, she seemed oddly under-rehearsed and therefore tentative. Of greater concern, many of the arrangements were commonplace. While Douglas was up to her usual standard in "What Did I Have?" and "Cry Me a River," she didn't quite nail a few songs that one would have expected her to hammer, such as "My Man" and "Don't Rain on My Parade." Simply put, this show needs more polish before it has a full scale New York run that might then lead to bookings hither and yon.