Cabaret Life NYC: Lauren Fox ('Canyon Folkies') and Jennifer Sheehan ('Songs of Sensational '60s') Transcend Time at the Metropolitan Room
Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
Stephen Hawking and his fellow physicists may not have yet figured out the formula for traveling through the time-space continuum, but apparently the Metropolitan Room discovered the secret. Last Friday night (October 26), I walked through the curtain into the main performance space and entered a time tunnel that took me from the 21st century into the 1960s and '70s. Two lovely, rising young stars of cabaret, Lauren Fox and Jennifer Sheehan (photo above), had obviously hurtled though that same time warp because in two separate shows on the same evening, they performed songs that had been written and recorded 15 to 25 years before they were born. In the process they transported this particular Baby Boomer joyously back to his youth and to the days of cultural upheaval, generation gaps, peace, love, war, and some of the best pop/rock music ever written.
It makes a heart sing to see and hear women in their mid-20s (like Sheehan) and mid-30s (like Fox) contributing to the creation of the Great American Pop/Rock Songbook. (The feeling is something akin to what members of the International Al Jolson Society must experience when someone in his mid-50s—ME—shows up at a yearly Jolson festival and actually brings down the average age of the room.) There's no doubt that their Boomer parents contributed to the affinity Sheehan and Fox have for classic '60s/'70s pop and rock n' roll, and as they both proved throughout that time warped Friday night, they deliver the songs with a polish, poise, and passion that make those wonderful old songs new again.
The journey into the musical past began with Sheehan's show I Know a Place: Spend a Night in the Sensational '60s. While the theme of Fox's show was tightly structured around the poetic and drug-fueled folk rock that came out of California in the mid-'60s to early '70s, Sheehan painted her set with a much broader and light-hearted early-to-mid-'60s brush, including everything from Burt Bacharach and Hal David to Simon and Garfunkel, from Blossom Dearie to The Beatles, from The Supremes to Streisand, from Johnny Mercer to Joni Mitchell. For the most part it worked, although Sheehan fudged her theme a bit by eschewing some really memorable rock 'n roll of the decade (no '60s Elvis, Dusty Springfield or Lulu?) to squeeze in musical theater numbers and theme songs from films of the period, some of which weren't as effectively delivered as the pop/rock tunes.
Wearing a stylishly '60s white/silver cocktail dress that was sleeveless and backless—but unfortunately longer than the mini-skirts Goldie Hawn wore in the late '60s wacky TV comedy/variety show Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In—the brunette beauty effectively opened with the 1965 Petula Clark hit "I Know a Place," boogaloo-ing like a Hullabaloo girl during the breaks. Sheehan then displayed her solid alto to mezzo soprano range during a Bacharach/David medley, including the Carpenters' "Close to You" and "This Guy's In Love With You," the big Herb Alpert hit in 1968. At this point it was clear that Sheehan and her fine Musical Director James Followell had decided, for the most part, to go with fairly conventional arrangements, although they did have some fun early with "The Boy From . . . " the Mary Rodgers/Stephen Songheim parody of the Antonio Carlos Jobim/Vinicius de Moraes hit "The Girl from Ipanema." (Linda Lavin sang it in the 1966 Off-Broadway revue The Mad Show.) Sheehan went from adorably cute on "The Boy From . . . " to accessibly sexy on another Jobim/Moraes song "No More Blues (Chega de Sadade)." When Sheehan started her bossa nova sway, she and the number were a dead-ringer for Jessica Pare's "Zou Bisou Bisou" star turn in an early 2012 episode of the TV hit Mad Men. (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)
Followell did compose some nifty vocal arrangements for Sheehan on a Beatles medley that was bookended by lovely versions of "I Will" and "In My Life." She then segued from a quick "Come See About Me" (the 1964 hit for Diana Ross and The Supremes) into a jazzy, be-bop vibe on Blossom Dearie's "Blossom Blues," which turned out to be a much better fit and less ambitious than taking on "My Man" (included because Barbra Streisand recorded the Fanny Brice classic in 1965 and sang it in the 1968 film Funny Girl), which was a bit too much song for Sheehan's range and lacked emotional power. On the movie score front, Jessica fared much better with poignant renditions of Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer's "Moon River" (from 1961's Breakfast at Tiffany's) and Bacharach and David's title song from the 1966 hit Alfie.
The older Baby Boomers in the audience feigned displeasure at being reminded that Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel and Carole King were all 70 years old during 2012, but Sheehan softened the blow by offering beautifully nostalgic and introspective takes of Simon's "Old Friends/Bookends" and King and Gerry Goffin's "Will You Still Love Tomorrow." After a nod to '60s Broadway with solid if unspectacular versions of Sondheim's "With So Little to Be Sure Of (from 1964's Anyone Can Whistle) and Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse's "Once in a Lifetime" (from 1962's Stop the World, I Want to Get Off), Sheehan returned to folk/rock and was wonderfully wistful on two Joni Mitchell standards, “Both Sides Now” (in a medley with Randy Newman's “I Think It's Going to Rain Today”) and “Woodstock.” The choices were tinged with irony since Lauren Fox sang the former in her 2011 MAC Award-winning Joni Mitchell/Leonard Cohen show, and the latter in her show that followed Sheehan's. Thankfully, you can't get enough of those songs if they're done well and Jennifer Sheehan's versions—in fact her entire show—was a very groovy start to my magical night in the Metropolitan Room time tunnel.
I never got a chance to see Lauren Fox's 2011 show Love, Lust, Fear & Freedom: The Songs of Joni Mitchell & Leonard Cohen, but I certainly heard and read a lot about it. The MAC and Bistro-Award winning performance—which now seems like the first of a two-part exploration of the more poetic, introspective songwriters and songs of the '60s and '70s—was either highly-praised by most cabaret critics or whispered about as overrated by some in the general cabaret community. Man, do I wish I'd seen that first show because this new one—Canyon Folkies: Over the Hills & Under the Covers—is far-freakin'-out, definitely a candidate for 2012 Cabaret Show of the Year.
Laurel Canyon is the area northwest of Los Angeles that was the creative breeding ground to some of the most talented and successful songwriters and bands of the mid-60s to early '70s; a veritable all-star team of folk singers to psychedelic rockers, including The Byrds, The Mamas and the Papas, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Jackson Browne, Frank Zappa, Carole King, BrIan Wilson, Jim Morrison and The Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Joni Mitchell. In a 1-hour and 20-minute cabaret show, Lauren Fox and her incredible band—featuring musical director Jon Weber piano, Peter Calo on Guitar and Ritt Henn on bass—recreated the sound and atmosphere of the period, transforming the Metropolitan Room into a '60s music commune.
Fox took the stage wearing a sleeveless, floor-length dress and with her long dark auburn hair, she looked liked a period flower-child; her angelic face a cross between Joni Mitchell and the actress Cate Blanchett. After cleverly opening with Jackson Browne's "A Child in These Hills," Fox and friends offered a stripped-down arrangement (including Weber providing pounding percussion on the piano top) of Stephen Stills' "For What It's Worth,” attacking this protest song with a passionate ferocity that set the high standard for the entire set. After the band rocked out on The Byrds' "So, You Want to Be a Rock 'n Roll Star,” they supported their front singer with lovely Mamas and the Papas-style harmonies on "Twelve-Thirty." The biggest disappointment of the night—at least for me—was that Fox and the band only offered a small taste of the great Stephen Stills' breakup anthem for singer Judy Collins, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," but given the epic length of the actual song, it's understandable the audience had to settle for just a luscious slice.
Fox and Weber surely had hundreds of songs to choose from, but they made excellent selections for not only good story-telling but for Fox's smokey, middle-range pop/folk voice. While she doesn't have the vocal power to consistently sustain notes at the end of phrases, Fox possesses the timbre, trilly vibrato, and whispering quality that is ideal for these particular period songs. Weber's expert arrangements and the masculine sound of the band's backup vocals not only supported but also enhanced Fox's Mitchelle-esque sound. The guys produced delicious harmonies on Graham Nash's "Our House," the Jackson Browne/Glenn Frey/Eagles hit "Take It Easy (during which Calo excelled on guitar), and a song-ending acapella on Jackson Browne's "Before the Deluge."
The show gradually built in musical power and precision. Weber's piano breaks took Carole King's "Way Over Yonder" to another level, and then a nice arrangement and Fox's warm vocal on "You've Got a Friend," sprung the song from cliche jail. But the show probably reached its peak 11 songs in when Fox delivered a positively ethereal and transcendent version of Mitchell's "Woodstock” (which had been one of the highlights of the first night of the October Cabaret Convention), during which Fox totally inhabited the Mitchell version and the songwriter's utopian vision of what's possible through "song and celebration." As fine as the rest of the set was, it seemed an anti-climax until mind-blowing time. With a faux psychedelic slide-show featuring pictures of Jim Morrison projected behind her, Fox and her band offered such a mesmerizing and electrifying "The End" (featuring an awesome Ritt Henn bass riff), I was digging through the nuts bowl on my table to see if they'd mixed in some acid tabs.
Hmmm, perhaps they did drop in a hallucinogenic almond and that's why I imagined travelling through the musical time tunnel. As I started walking towards the Met Room's magic curtain to leave, I thought about the summer of 1967, the year I became a devoted pop/rock music lover (when the number one hit was The Doors' "Light My Fire"). After listening to Lauren Fox and Jennifer Sheehan transport me back to that time, space, and feeling, did I really have to go back to 2012?
Due to Hurricane Sandy, Lauren Fox's performance of Canyon Folkies, scheduled for November 2 at 7pm at the Metropolitan Room is being rescheduled for Sunday, November 11 at 4pm.