BWW Review: Dianna Agron Nails the Songs But Loses the Thread at Cafe Carlyle
In a return engagement at the Café Carlyle, Dianna Agron arrived with a setlist impeccably tailored for her husky register. But as a cabaret, it was hard not to be let down by its somewhat slapdash execution.
The January 23 show started strong, with the GLEE alum crooning Nancy Sinatra's "Not The Lovin' Kind," though even she admitted that a planned verse switcheroo didn't work as well as intended. But her homage to Nico's cover of "These Days" (Jackson Browne) was perfectly matched for her unshakably measured diction. It also brilliantly showcased her significantly expanded band, particularly the additions of Audrey Hayes on viola and Margot on violin and vocals, with Agron also crediting the latter for the arrangements. Agron and guitarist/vocalist Gill Landry retained their comfortable rapport from the last show, with the band also featuring Sarah Goldstone on keys, Alex Chakour on bass, George Crotty on cello, and Kasperi Sarikoski on trombone.
But it wasn't long before the show revealed itself to be rather rudderless. While it was billed as a tribute to "some of finest female-fronted acts of the '60s and '70s," that concept was muddied in practice, given that a not-insignificant portion of the songs were performed by men. Agron herself conceded that thread was a bit tenuous but that they were some of her favorites and fun to sing. Going off theme isn't a crime, so long as you're using the songs you've chosen to say something. Just as she had in her Café Carlyle debut, Agron remained mostly mum on why these specific songs were selected and what they meant to her, nor were they used to tell a story.
That was all the more frustrating given how hastily thrown together most of her commentary between songs was. Agron almost exclusively mused on events from the previous night's performance, like finding out what she thought was a birthday treat being delivered to a table was actually for an anniversary and other had-to-be-there moments. At the very least, providing context would've given more insight into who Agron is as an artist.
The one notable exception surrounded her dreamy duet with Margot, the pair delightfully doo-we-oohing their way through "On How To Be Lovely" (George Gershwin) from FUNNY FACE. Agron connected the number back to her childhood when she was alone in her love of old movies. She also briefly mentioned that, through her father's work as a hotel manager, she grew up in hotels. There seems to be plenty to mine from that somewhat unique upbringing, given that not many of us could say we were a real-life Eloise (or, at the very least, Zack or Cody). Even though it could've been deepened, it was nice to see.
Not that the audience seemed to mind. After Agron essentially invited them to interact with her a bit during the show, when she asked what they should tell people inquiring about the show, one woman shouted, "Pure awesome!"
There were also glimpses of the show Agron had envisioned. Group vocals lovingly supported the '60s wave to her voice on The Sapphires' "Who Do You Love," and her wicked delivery of the spoken word portions of Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" (Jerry Leiber/Mike Stoller) really added some crackle to an already darkly comic number.
She also revived a handful of the most effective numbers from her Café Carlyle debut in late 2017---the debut took on her favorite male performers from the same era--- including Leonard Cohen's "Dance Me to the End of Love" (Cohen/David Campbell) to "Dream a Little Dream of Me" (Fabian Andre). Most impressively, at an audience member's request---or, persistent demand, rather---near the end of the show, she and Landry conjured up an impromptu repeat performance of John Prine's "In Spite Of Ourselves," a sweet folk ditty as charming as it is wordy. Agron throwing in the word "something" in when she didn't remember a word was the most genuine moment of the night.
There's certainly nothing wrong with building on what worked in her previous show. I just wish it felt like it was building toward something.
Troy Frisby is an entertainment writer and digital news producer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @TroyFrisby.