CABARET LIFE NYC: Lauren Fox & Ritt Henn Successfully Expand Definition of Cabaret With Surreal David Lynch Show
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
Just call her "Out-Of-The-Box" Fox.
Or perhaps "Ms. Cabaret Iconoclast of the 21st Century" would do the trick. Either way, lovely Lauren Fox, one of the more multifaceted and ambitious young stars of the New York cabaret scene, seems intent on redefining what is already a pretty open-ended art form. The recent run of her new duo show at Stage 72 with bass player Ritt Henn, Ghosts of Love: Songs from the Reel World of David Lynch (January 9, 18, 23, and 24) was the most recent example of Ms. Fox's unconventional approach to a 70-80 minute nightclub show (a critique of which we will get to in a bit).
Fox's previous two efforts--her inspired homage to the songs of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, followed by an incredibly entertaining tribute to the folk-rock music that emanated from California's Laurel Canyon in the late 1960s--were clearly outside of the "Great American Songbook" canon, but not totally ground-breaking. Many among the new breed of cabaret performers have been pushing a "New" GAS for years (Bob Dylan, Barry Manilow, Billy Joel, Carole King, Laura Nyro, even Ani DeFranco, among others, have been paid tribute on New York cabaret club stages). But it was in late November 2012 when I ran into Fox at one of Joseph Macchia's Cabaret Cares benefit shows at the Laurie Beechman that I realized her maverick-like approach to cabaret would definitely be a pattern.
I had just announced I would be staging my debut cabaret show--an examination of the Don McLean songbook--the following May. Lauren congratulated me and added that she had also been thinking about doing a show in the coming year with a McLeanish theme. Once she explained the nature of the idea (discretion prevents me from revealing the gist of this future Foxian show), I didn't feel I'd be upstaged--well, not too much anyway. Like many serious or even casual cabaret performers, however, Fox always has a veritable plethora of ideas swirling in that pretty head of hers and McLean has been pushed to the back burner. In addition to spending much of 2013 performing both Mitchell/Cohen and Canyon Folkies in New York and other environs, Fox produced and performed in a rocking benefit variety show at the Metropolitan Room to raise money for Rockaways victims of Hurricane Sandy, produced and performed in a groovy tribute to Woodstock at 54 Below, performed in a myriad of variety shows, and in the midst of all that made a dynamic directorial debut on one of the best cabaret shows of the year, Marissa Mulder's tribute to the songs of Tom Waits.
When Fox eventually found time to work on a new show shortly after this past October's Cabaret Convention, the idea that pushed to the front of her brain's right hemisphere wasn't something off-beat but obvious, like a Stevie Nicks tribute (one of Fox's musical heroes). It was an exploration of the obsessive, tortured love and dreamlike-sounding music conveyed in the films of David Lynch. Joining forces with the entertaining Ritt Henn, one of the scene's most accomplished bass players and a Fox band regular from her previous shows (and who has plenty of experience in a duo format from his more comedic forays with fellow songwriter Mary Liz McNamara), they formed a twosome under the cute and clever moniker "Fox In the Henn House." With Ghosts of Love they have now expanded the definition of cabaret with a compelling piece of musical performance art, almost akin to what the beat poets and musicians were concocting in Greenwich Village in the late 1950s/early '60s.
The ornately framed stage at what was formerly "The Triad" on West 72nd Street was the ideal setting for such a theatrical and cinematically constructed show featuring 14 songs from seven Lynch films and one celebrated television series (the 1990-91 phenomenon, Twin Peaks). Downstage center sat more than 30 votive candles because, after all, ghosts--even lovers who have likely met a tragic death through extreme self-destructiveness--seek warmth and light, as they live trapped between dimensions. A string of chimes hung from the ceiling center stage, which the characters would ping periodically, perhaps as a vehicle to keep their shadows visible in three dimensions. In the show's second half, as the set up for the song "In Heaven" from the film Eraserhead, Henn's character advised "Get ready for first class despondency and madness" (which was a line from a 1991 episode of Twin Peaks), and the lyric from the song, "In heaven everything is fine," was something of a recurring theme. For these ghostly characters in a dysfunctional, counter-dependent relationship, everything may be fine in heaven, but they haven't ascended there quite yet. They are in obsessive lovers limbo and they know it . . . or do they? (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)
As the show began, Henn emerged from the wings and whistled, almost like a call to the wild, as Fox slowly entered from the back of the theater, as if an apparition floating through space. Wearing a floor length, blue velvet gown ('natch), she answered with a wailing whistle of her own, and it was as though the characters were conjuring their presence at their own séance. Tech director Shannon Epstein's lighting provided an eerily dark background for the ghostly lovers as they haunted the room.
With Fox's auburn locks restyled from long, straight and middle parted to one with bangs sitting just above her eyebrows, her angelic-looking yet mysteriously unattainable goddess character was a hybrid of damaged Lynchian film heroines Isabella Rossilini and Laura Dern. Fox is an accomplished actress and she stayed mesmerizingly in character throughout the show. Henn played the Nicholas Cage from Wild at Heart role, alternatively menacing, maniacal, and mischievous, and possessing the requisite masculinity and sex appeal to hold his own in this can't-live-with-her, can't-live-without-her relationship with his manipulative lover. Henn is exactly the kind of character Lynch would cast as a romantic lead--especially if he was directing a cabaret show.
"I never dreamed I'd love somebody like you . . . never dreamed I'd lose somebody like you," Henn growls during the opening number, "Wicked Game" (performed by Chris Isaak in Wild at Heart). "It's strange what desire will make foolish people do . . . This world is only gonna break your heart." And so began the audience's journey into observing this obsessive-compulsive relationship play out. Fox joined in on the number and by the third show had nicely smoothed out a few upper register vocal flaws from opening night. Her rendition of "Love Me Tender" (from Wild at Heart) was sinewy and ethereal, with Henn's soft bass notes offering a subtle and haunting undertone, almost as if the instrument itself was voyeuristically watching these damaged lovers expressing their feelings for each other. Musically, Henn served as an amazing one-man band, masterfully conveying some of those lush and otherworldly Angelo Badalamenti noir/jazz melodies through his own inspired and subtle arrangements with just an electric bass guitar or a ukulele.
One of the show's early highlights was the duo's version of "Sixteen Reasons (Why I Love You)." In a very noir-ish arrangement, they turned this 1960 Connie Stevens pop song used in Mulholland Drive on its head. Instead of Fox singing the song up-tempo and offering all the rationales for loving her guy, she whispered the numbers as if casting a hypnotic spell, compelling and manipulating her lover into revealing the reasons for his obsession with her. At this point in the show, it was becoming clearer (at least to me, if not an audience that didn't always know if or when they should applaud) that Fox and Henn had somehow managed to structure these songs into something of a storyline. On "Blue Velvet," Fox coyly descended the stage and slinked through the audience, attempting to seduce every man in her path. As Ritt accompanied on bass, he wore a jealous but almost accepting stare at her escapades, before answering with Lynch's haiku-like lyric for "Blue Star." "Shadows fall so blue . . . As lonely as a . . . blue, blue star," and added a threatening, "There are consequences to one's actions." In the medley that followed, Fox admonished Henn for being a "Sinnerman" (from Inland Empire), while both admitted that for each other they were "The Perfect Drug" (from Lost Highway).
Henn: "We can't do this anymore." Fox: "Don't ever say that." She then clearly established her feminine power and insisted he succumb: "I put a spell on you . . . because you're mine," she sang/screamed on the song Marilyn Manson performed in Lost Highway. But it was apparent that Henn's character had also cast a spell on her and Fox's ghost finally revealed her vulnerability on "In Dreams," the Roy Orbison classic from Blue Velvet. With Henn softly plucking a ukulele, Fox produced her best and most gutsy vocal of the show with the tortured wail of a sad siren that climaxed with her producing an Orbison-like falsetto reaching her personal vocal stratosphere. Ghosts can sometimes do things humans can't, you know?
In the opening night show, the duo's only patter--other than the pieces of Lynch scripts Fox inserted throughout--was a post-finale acknowledgement to the theater and for Epstein's fine work on lighting, during which they remained in dark and brooding character. By the third show they had lightened up for the encore. With Henn acknowledging that the show might "have some people reaching for razor blades or a noose," he and Fox smiled their way through "This Magic Moment" (sung almost Bob Dylan-like by Lou Reed in Lost Highway).
If you are a connoisseur and lover of Lynch films and their soundtracks, the excellence of Ghosts of Love will leave you practically euphoric. If you're merely a casual Lynch fan, find him an acquired taste, or perhaps aren't enamored of the quirky director's gestalt, you could look at the show's conceit as somewhat self-indulgent and pretentious. You might feel a bit like film buff Larry Taylor, who opined on a website called What Culture: "What was so brilliant about a film that has no direction like Blue Velvet? Why is it considered a work of a genius? I knew something was there, not because everyone was telling me so, but because something kept drawing me back into Lynch's work. I don't know how many times I have sat down to watch a Lynch film--be it Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive or the ultra-violent Wild at Heart--and I have turned off the film well before it ended. I would sit down with what I thought was the right frame of mind to explore Lynch's filmmaking and would wind up frustrated, distracted, and exhausted . . . "
But you could also come away from this show, as I did (especially after a second experience with it), appreciating the effort, creativity, passion, and gumption it took for Fox and Henn to produce it. As Larry Taylor would write later in the same essay, "I still don't know what made me 'get' Lynch all of a sudden. But I am glad I finally understand the way he operates within the universe of his pictures. The magic surrealist portraits he paints through his off-kilter view of the world belong in cinema. They exist to be confounding; they thrive on bewilderment."
In a David Lynch book titled, Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, the director tells a story about going to a psychiatrist to talk about something disturbing that had become a pattern in his life. Lynch wrote: "When I got into the room I asked him, 'Do you think that this process could, in any way, damage my creativity?' And he said, 'Well, David, I have to be honest: It could.' And I shook his hand and left."
In less innovative or less creative hands, a tribute to David Lynch films and the music within them could have been merely a bunch of songs separated by the ellipses of Wikipedia factoids. Love it or hate it, what Fox and Henn have concocted is operatic film noir--cabaret style. Was this show a moment of magic? The words surreal and paranormal may be more like it. And that's probably just the way Lauren Fox wants it. Silencio!
Fox In the Henn House will again be presenting Ghosts of Love: Songs From the Reel World of David Lynch at Stage 72 on February 20 and March 12 at 7pm. For reservations go to: http://stage72.com/buy-tickets/ or call 1-800-838-3006.