Shaynee Rainbolt and Donn Trenner Transcend Time and Cabaret in Charmingly Nostalgic Show at the Metropolitan Room
Cabaret Review by Stephen Hanks
When is a cabaret show much more than just a cabaret show? Well, usually when-and this is rare-there is a subtext, either subtle or obvious, that defines the performance as something beyond just a singer delivering the goods. It could be a compelling theme or a particularly poignant or witty script that make a show special. Or it could be a unique chemistry and bond between the performers that can take a cabaret show to another level and render it incredibly memorable.
Currently playing at the Metropolitan Room on Friday nights through September (at 9:30 pm), Two for the Road starring singer Shaynee Rainbolt and musical director/pianist Donn Trenner is just such a show. While the pairing of Rainbolt, a critically-acclaimed jazz singer (and multiple MAC and Bistro-Award winner), with Trenner, an Emmy-nominated musical director, conductor, and arranger (who has played piano for a Hollywood Walk of Fame full of stars including Ann-Margret, Shirley MacLaine and Bob Hope) seems as close to a cabaret show slam dunk as you get, there is an intense connection between these two performers that is palpable from the moment Rainbolt wraps her luscious voice around Trenner's jazzy piano riffing for the show's opening number "Lucky to be Me" (from the 1944 Leonard Bernstein/Betty Comden/Adolph Green musical On the Town). But this particular cabaret chemistry experiment was more than a decade in the making.
Just over 11 years ago, Rainbolt had finished a show at the Plush Room in San Francisco when a much older man Shaynee had never met offered his compliments on her performance. He asked the singer if she was related to Emmy-award winning TV director Bill Rainbolt, who was Shaynee's father and who had died just a year and a half earlier. As Shaynee probed for more information on the man's connection to her late father, Rainbolt's mother Manon recognized him as old family friend Donn Trenner and leapt into his arms.
Over the next decade, Rainbolt and Trenner cultivated their friendship and after Shaynee's mom died in 2011, she began lobbying the venerable veteran musician to collaborate with her on a cabaret show. During Two for the Road, as you listen to Shaynee vocally caress Trenner's piano arrangements as if they were childhood security blankets, you can sense that she regards her accompanist as if he was a surrogate dad. Perhaps through Trenner she can even feel the presence of her parents on that stage. When Rainbolt talks about how their collaboration has been "organic," or when she rambles a bit in her patter, Trenner feigns impatience, engendering one of those "Oh, Dad," kind of looks from Shaynee before she adds, "C'mon, Donn, you love me. Admit it." Trenner offers a lovingly paternal grin and continues playing.
If that wasn't enough of a "familial" connection-to use another of Rainbolt's words during the show-two of Shaynee's most effective songs in the set are Cole Porter's "Down in the Depths on the 90th Floor" and Trenner's first original composition "Memory of the Rain" (written 68 years ago when he was just 17), both of which were recorded in 1955 by Trenner's wife, singer Helen Carr, whose voice was like a cross between Billie Holiday and Doris Day (and who died in 1960 at age 36; that's Trenner at the piano and Carr is at left in photo). One can only imagine what is going through Trenner's mind as he listens to his surrogate daughter Shaynee bring those songs-and his late wife-back to life. (Please click on Page 2 below to continue.)
Between the two of them, a whole set full of old songs are brought through the time tunnel. This charming show may have been titled Two for the Road (the Henri Mancini/Leslie Bricusse tune that is featured towards the end of the set), but it could just as easily been named for the finale, "Thanks for the Memory" because romantic nostalgia wafted through the late night Metropolitan Room air. If you close your eyes at any time during the 15-song set (plus a lovely, if too brief encore of "I'll Be Seeing You"), you'd swear you are in a nightclub circa 1930s to '50s, where a lovely lounge singer is sensuously delivering torchy pop ballads. Given that both Trenner's piano style and Rainbolt's vocal colorings are jazz-infused, they are totally simpatico on Trenner's arrangements of songs that through the decades have been sung or recorded by the likes of Alice Faye, Blossom Dearie, Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day, Julie London, and Billie Holiday. Rainbolt and Trenner even transform more contemporary songs such as the John Lennon/Paul McCartney classic "Yesterday" and the beautiful 1975 Melissa Manchester ballad "Come in From the Rain" (co-written with Carol Bayer Sager), into languid, retro-style torch songs.
There was a touch of trepidation in Rainbolt's voice when she said during the first show of this run that "this set is filled with songs I've never done before," and although they are less jazzy than the classics she knocks out of the park regularly at the Sugar Bar on the Upper West Side, they are definitely in her vocal wheelhouse. On a complex arrangement of the classic nightclub ballad "Midnight Sun," Trenner plays jazzy and dissonant chords against Rainbolt's melody line and she pulls it off seamlessly. With a voice as rich and silky as her auburn hair, Shaynee offers the Johnny Mercer lyric as a seductive poem: "Your lips were like a red and ruby chalice, warmer than the summer night/The clouds were like an alabaster palace, rising to a snowy height/Each star its own aurora borealis, suddenly you held me tight/I could see the Midnight Sun."
Rainbolt is taking advantage of this collaboration with the uber-experienced Trenner to further enhance her already polished interpretation of songs. In an interview with Shaynee for Cabaret Scenes Magazine just before the show's run, she told me that working with Trenner had "opened my ears and I'm really listening. The way Donn voices chords colors the song in a way that informs not only how I hear it and the melody, but also it informs me emotionally . . . he isn't just supporting me, he's informing me, listening to me and answering me." As a result, Rainbolt is stretching her song pallette and conveying lyrics with more confidence and passion than ever.
Trenner may be pushing 86 but the current leader of the Hartford Jazz Orchestra plays the piano with fingers that are still spry, supple and expressive. His extended piano intro on Michel Legrand's "I Will Wait for You" (from the French musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) makes you feel like you're walking along the banks of the Seine. On "No Moon at All," Trenner's digits glide along the keyboard like he's skating on the ivories. And on "Memory of the Rain," he plays the notes as if raindrops were gently landing on the keys.
Before the show's finale, Trenner relates a few anecdotes from the seven years he worked with Bob Hope as the legendary comedian's musical director/pianist during the heyday of Hope's USO Christmas tours. As Rainbolt then reverentially sings Hope's famous trademark tune "Thanks for the Memory" as a romantic, tender, and wistful reminiscence of experiences past, you just know that this transcendent show-and this poignant collaboration-will be a memory she'll be thankful for the rest of her life.
Shaynee Rainbolt and Donn Trenner continue their run of "Two for the Road," at the Metropolitan Room on Friday, September 21 and 28, both at 9:30 pm.