BWW Review: A Restrained Dianna Agron Explores a New Era in Her Cafe Carlyle Debut
"As you can probably tell, I love Bob Dylan."
Dianna Agron's joke during her Café Carlyle debut was a fair one, considering Dylan's songs made up a solid quarter of her set list, at least. Yet, over the course of the September 19 performance, Agron split her time between a whole host of "male-fronted acts of the '70s," though, technically, many of the songs did hail from the decade prior.
The songs, she said, were personal to her, featuring many her parents played for her growing up. They also represent something of a reintroduction, with the GLEE alum pointing out that her voice is naturally much lower than many of the songs she was tasked with singing on the FOX hit show. The star opted to open the show with a rendition of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right," with her voice low but clear as crystal.
Staying fairly faithful to most of the original arrangements, Agron did make a slight adjustment here and there, tweaking her intonation of The Rolling Stones' "Play with Fire" (Nanker Phelge) to wring a little extra juice out of the word "fire."
Though she and the Carlyle go way back, Agron explained she's a recent transplant to the city, having felt the need to build up to moving to New York before finally pulling the trigger. At the top of the show, the better part of her patter was devoted to soothing her nerves, teasing that she'd heard the cabaret room was womb-like and insisting the whole show wasn't "going to be Sleepytown."
If her comments hadn't loosened things up, one of her next songs sure would've. She was backed---primarily on guitar, with a dash of harmonica thrown in---by Gill Landry. The pair, who had an easy rapport onstage, took a delightful detour from dad rock by covering John Prine's "In Spite Of Ourselves." Affecting a bit of a twang, Agron never seemed more at ease than when they sang the comedic down-home duet about a couple loving one another despite their differences. (He "drinks his beer like it's oxygen," and she thinks "convict movies" are a turn-on.)
Before launching into her cover of "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" afterward, she defended its inclusion based on the night's theme, reminding everyone that the Nancy Sinatra hit was actually penned by Sonny Bono. As for the song itself, it was a feat of enunciation, with Agron treating each syllable with care.
As expressive as she was in those moments, when it came to revealing herself through her own words, Agron seemed more than a little gunshy. But being so guarded in such an intimate setting can feel like a cheat, like when she announced she wouldn't tell a story about accidentally showing up drunk to temple because she'd heard some members of the press were in attendance.
A bit later, Agron felt the need to clarify, for fear that the audience's imagination would be far worse than the story itself. In actuality, the truth was quite tame. More importantly, though, it was by far the most personal and, in turn, relatable thing she said all night. True, we haven't all spent a holiday rushing from drinks with a film director to a religious ceremony, but alcohol minus food equaling trouble is an equation as universal as E=mc2.
While her storytelling was restrained, she made up for it with comic timing. After one number, she addressed everyone in the room as "friends and lovers" since everyone was getting along, waiting a beat before deadpanning, "Unless there's something we don't know..."
Her graciousness throughout the evening only bolstered her dry delivery. Leading into her mesmerizing rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love" (Cohen/David Campbell), she said, "I want to ask you for something, and you may say no... and that's fair," drawing laughs from those in the crowd, who were more than happy to join in. Agron wasn't looking for a simple call-and-response or even a singalong on the chorus, instead asking them to match her as she vocalized along with the melody.
She again asked the crowd to join in during the duo's closing cover of "Dream a Little Dream of Me" (Fabian Andre) after pointing out that the lyrics are deceptively complex. Agron showed tremendous trust with what is, at the very least, intermediate-level audience participation, and I respect her desire not to connect all the dots.
Still, it would have been nice is if the show had featured a little less showing and a bit more telling. As dynamic as the numbers often were, from Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" to a duet with on Dylan's "It Ain't Me Babe," Agron offered little more context for many than saying how much she liked them.
First-show jitters may have had something to do with that, but opening up about what the songs mean to her can only make them more resonant. Besides, she's a New Yorker now. She'll get used to letting it all hang out in no time.
Troy Frisby is an entertainment writer and digital news producer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @TroyFrisby.