BWW Review: Dawn Derow Decorates THE HOUSE THAT BUILT ME with Love at The Laurie Beechman Theatre
The stage bathed in blue, the darkened dining room filled with an audience still wet from a rainstorm, the conductor nodded his head, and the music started. An easy rhythm and an easygoing sound filled the air, bringing a much-welcome feeling of sunny warmth to the basement theatre called The Laurie Beechman, on a genuinely nasty autumn day. Musicians leaned in to their microphones and began to coo beautiful vocal vowels. It was as though a collective audible sigh of relief emitted from the pack of people gathered, there to hear a happy story and some buoyant music. Little did they know...
And buoyancy began.
"The House That Built Me" is Dawn Derow's 2019 cabaret show, debuting to sold-out houses in June, necessitating two encore performances this fall, a lucky strike for those (like this writer) who missed the show the first time around. And while all types of shows are welcome and appreciated inside the walls of cabaret theaters and nightclubs in New York City, The House That Built Me is an authentic cabaret show. It has a theme, a structure, a story and a first class singing actress at the center of it, her supporting players the kind of supporting players of which every person standing center stage dreams. It is entirely fair to say that the house that Dawn built has a script that makes for a solid foundation, three musicians creating load bearing walls, a director acting as both architect and construction foreman, and a star who has decorated that house with warmth, humanity, pathos and humor. This is a near-perfect show being performed by a sheer perfect performer.
Dawn Derow dresses like a rocker, sings like a diva, and talks jubilantly about pot brownies, Broadway musicals, and the history of a happy family. Many is the time we, as audience members, sit in a nightclub listening to the journey of a storyteller who has overcome adversity and obstacles that stood in the way of their happiness; and those are beautiful, inspiring stories that deserve to be told, deserve to be heard. Not all stories, though, are unhappy ones, and as Dawn Derow uses music of greatly varying genres to tell her tale, the story is an unqualified happy one. This is a Saturday afternoon movie where Diane Keaton and Reese Witherspoon ride bikes on a boardwalk while, behind them, children play on a beach and couples hold hands, running through the surf. Bright and optimistic, The House That Built Me has been crafted with immaculately written dialogue that runs throughout, dropping into the instrumental breaks in the songs, connecting the tunes to one another like a bridge over not-so-troubled waters.
And the songs come from everywhere.
It turns out Dawn Derow can sing anything, a fact she proves with music by John Mayer, Miranda Lambert, Loretta Lynn, Jacques Brel, Judy Collins, Billy Joel, and the worlds of Broadway and Opera, and each musical offering is one served up on a silver platter of mellifluousness by the honey-voiced virtuosa. It is apropos that Derow chooses the song "Cape Cod" because she has the voice of a Patti Page type, a singer from the days when the vocalists had distinctive, rich, memorable voices, voices like a Christmas CD, comfortable and comforting. This is a voice you spend money on, whether by going to a show or buying a recording so that you can always hear it. It matters not whether the voice is crooning country, belting Broadway or swinging standards, it is a voice replete with emotion, musicality and possibility.
It's not just the singing, though, that makes Dawn Derow and The House That Built Me such a special experience. Derow has a knack for delivering foolproof dialogue that paints pictures with words, creating visual works of art of Cape Cod, New Jersey, childhood, high school, Italian traditions, bad boyfriends and big mistakes - and whether she is speaking words, singing lyrics or vocalizing a melody, she is always able to give rise, in the room and in the heart, to a wealth of experiential moments that have left in our own hearts the memories that warm us on rainy autumn days. Members of the audience spent these 70 minutes gazing at her with moony expressions or howling at her hilarity. Dawn Derow just can't help it: she is irresistible.
Also irresistible are the men on the stage with her: Peter Calo on Guitar, Steven Doyle on Bass and Musical Director Matt Baker are all superb musicians, this much cannot be denied, but they are also good friends who have Dawn's back, keeping an eye on her, keeping her musically safe and sound (even if their background vocals on "Our House" overpower her at times, standing out, rather than blending, as all background vocals should). They're like three older brothers keeping an eye on their fashionable and fierce kid sister. Especially charming is Mr. Baker, who has a flirty friendship with Derow, visible during their platonic duet "People Will Say We're In Love" and, frankly, any time they interact with one another (the platonic part is important to note, since Derow points out her boyfriend during the show "I finally got a nice guy"). These three men, and director Jeff Harnar, have given Dawn Derow a space so supportive and safe that all she needs to do is show up and bring her talents, both those natural and those learned through study and practice, for no singer could cover so vast a performance range without study. Moving easily between pop, rock, Broadway and opera is a feat not easily achieved, and it is a joyful surprise to watch.
It is, though, the operatic entry in The House That Built Me that makes this a "near perfect" show.
While The House That Built Me is, ostensibly, about Derow's youth, family, and the house(s) they lived in, it is also about the house built inside of her by her father's musical tastes and his record collection (a fun part of the entertainment is seeing Dawn with her Daddy's records). To that end there is a three-song section of the show dedicated to her father: one country song, one Broadway song, and one opera aria. And while her love for her father and her musical range are both admirable, the opera offering seems out of place and slightly indulgent in a small intimate space like The Laurie Beechman. Perhaps it would feel less out of place without the pre-recorded track to which Ms. Derow sings the aria from La Rondina, or the slideshow that accompanies the number, making a slick, professional nightclub show feel like her Dad's retirement party. The time it took to lower, then raise, the projection screen, and start and finish the slide show effectively stopped the flow of action in an otherwise seamless storyline. It didn't take Derow much time to get it back on track, but there was definitely momentum lost.
Looking at the big picture, this is a small ding for four minutes of an otherwise flawless 75 minute show featuring a truly spectacular artist telling happy tales through poetic prose and musical majesty that has been astonishingly arranged within an inch of its life. This is cabaret its very best, and Dawn Derow and co deserve every accolade available to them for creating a show that is worth trudging through a rainstorm to see, a show that makes a person completely oblivious to the fact that they have been sitting for an hour in wet blue jeans and sweater. That is because the house Dawn Derow is building for her audience is a warm and welcome house, built of humanity, decorated with care, and filled to the rafters with love.
Follow Dawn Derow on Instagram @dawnderow and Twitter @DawnDerow
Photos By Stephen Mosher