BWW Reviews: Even When Dancing In the Dark, BARB JUNGR's Transformative Vocal Interpretations Illuminate Classic Pop Songs
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
It seemed only natural that the bodacious British cabaret chanteuse Barb Jungr would bring a new show to New York that could be staged in the small theater environment of 59E59. While Ms. Jungr's forays definitely are in the cabaret mold, they are also part theater-style performance art. In fact, Jungr is a crossover artist and genre hybrid on a number of levels. She's a jazzy and sultry-voice singer with a healthy dose of a pop sound. She's not a comedian but can be a cheeky raconteur bordering on stream of consciousness. She's a creative interpreter of song lyrics who can also honor the original intent of the songwriter at the same time. Barb Jungr has become an internationally-known performer who is also the quintessential cabaret artist.
All that said, it would be hard for Jungr to top her transcendent Bob Dylan tribute shows of the past few years (the last one being The Man in the Long Black Coat in 2012 at the Metropolitan Room). Dancing in the Dark was a nine-shows-in seven-days run that featured her interpretations of songs by Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Todd Rundgren, Bruce Springsteen (hence the show title) and other pop singer/songwriters, many of which have appeared on previous Jungr CDs. While this show wasn't up to the incredibly lofty standards of her Dylan efforts, it was nonetheless riveting. Given the season and the introspective nature of the show's 14 songs, Jungr considered this her "Dark Night of the Soul" set. The irony, however, is that through her exotic reinterpretations of contemporary pop songs, Jungr illuminates their meanings while also seeming lit up from within as she delivers them. Jungr exudes so much joy in communicating lyrics--expressing herself through her voice and her body (especially those pliable hands)--it's difficult not to feel uplifted even during the darkest of Dylan or Cohen.
With her go-to New York pianist Tracy Stark on the keys (Stark's playing was divinely supportive throughout), Jungr opened with a slightly up-tempo and bluesy version of Cohen's intense "Everybody Knows." You don't usually expect the highlight of a cabaret song set to come very early in a show, but Jungr followed Cohen with the show's title song by Bruce Springsteen, which the woman who has been called "Britain's answer to Edith Piaf" transformed from a pulsating rock 'n' roll dance ditty into a slow dance ballad. As an incurable romantic, to me Jungr's interpretation of this 1984 former MTV video came across as a seductive, close-the-bar conversation between strangers who have poured out their problems over too many cocktails and are about to become lovers. And what else could be the next morning follow up but one of these ill-fated lovers singing to the other the John Lennon and Paul McCartney lyric: "Were you telling lies, ah, the night before? Was I so unwise, ah, the night before? When I held you near . . . you were so sincere . . . Treat me like you did the night before."
The Beatles' tune from the 1965 album Help! was an unlikely choice for a cabaret set, but somehow Jungr made it work. Even more cabaret friendly was the next song, perhaps the answer from the other lover in Jungr's storyline, a lovely arrangement of Todd Rundgren's 1972 hit "I Saw the Light." Jungr was her expressive best while singing the words: "Though we had our fling, I just never would suspect a thing. Till that little bell began to ring, in my head, in my head." But that seemed a trifle compared with Jungr's take on Joni Mitchell's 1971 song "River," a Christmas-time rumination on the breakup of a relationship that Jungr transformed into a gospel-sounding, two-act play.
Second half of the show highlights included a "One-Night-Stand Medley" combining Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night," with Carole King's "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," two classic pop ballads that clearly merit inclusion in what Jungr calls "The New American Songbook." With Stark playing slow blues style on the former, Jungr sounded a little bit country on the song's hook, before going positively ethereal on the latter against Stark's understated accompaniment. But nothing was understated about Jungr's finale. After some hilarious riffs on Dylan's almost unintelligible speaking voice, Jungr proceeded to brilliantly unravel Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue," delivering every one of the song's seven long verses as if they were the storyline of a separate film, her vocal sliding up and down the melody as if she were, well, skating away on a river. After all, when you experience a Barb Jungr cabaret show, you're not dancing in the dark. You're seeing the light. --Photo by Carol Rosegg