Three days after Lena Hall departed from her Tony Award-winning role as Yitzhak in Broadway’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch she already found herself starring in another show: her Café Carlyle debut. Provocatively titled Sin and Salvation, the evening might alternately be titled Lena Unleashed. For indeed, the same force-of-nature vocals she has dutifully committed eight performances a week (for over a year) to Stephen Trask's Hedwig score are brought to bear on a well-selected program of blues, pop, and especially rock. If you didn’t notice the murals on the walls and men in dinner jackets, you might think you were at the Mercury Lounge rather than Café Carlyle.
And that’s not a bad thing, especially with a natural rock talent like Hall who fronts her own hard-rock band, The Deafening. She enters ferocious with the Jack White song "Three Women" and then cools us down with Led Zeppelin's trance-inducing "Dazed and Confused." Talking Heads, Queen, Paul McCartney: Hall has excellent taste in classic rock. None of it sounds out of place or too loud in the intimate confines of Café Carlyle thanks to the excellent balance work done by music director Watt White. White also plays guitar, giving us the chills with his psychedelic and blues solos.
Hall's vocal cords seem to be made of steel, regularly sending out a Janis Joplin-esque howl. Her unforgettable rendition of James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" is simultaneously soulful and articulate as Hall interprets each lyric as if it were a song in an R&B musical. They've never been clearer. "This is a man's world," she womansplains, "But it wouldn't be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl." The Janelle Monáe funky patter song "Tightrope" is also a winner, with Hall effortlessly rattling off its rapid-fire lyrics. She lives at the nexus of rock and theater, never skimping on a song's raw power, but also giving time to the story lurking underneath.
Surprisingly, Hall is not a big talker, keeping the audience banter to a minimum. But she really doesn't need to chitchat. The music says everything. "This is very B-side, so you wouldn't know it," she informs us before launching into Elton John's "Have Mercy on the Criminal." It’s the most vocally challenging number in the program, and she nails it. It's like spending an evening in Brooklyn browsing your cool friend's music collection, except instead of listening to her somewhat obscure rock on vinyl, she's singing it live.
While Hall's mastery of this chapter of the Great American Songbook is indisputable, one wonders what she might lend to the kind of jazz standards that more often appear at Café Carlyle. It would be thrilling to hear that powerful voice applied to "Stormy Weather" or "The Man That Got Away." What does the Lena Hall interpretation of "Come Rain or Come Shine" sound like? Probably delightfully like nothing we've ever heard before.
Of course, as Hall reminded us throughout the evening (on the rare occasions she spoke), this was the music she wanted to do. There's no special theme beyond that. Considering how immensely talented she is at performing it, that's quite enough for us.